The biblical perspective on politics is multi-faceted, calling us to engage in the care for communities while refusing to put much fear or hope into political outcomes.
1. Political engagement is important.
The Old Testament is brimming with politicians. In fact, most of the characters you know from the Old Testament played a political role of some sort.
Abraham was a nomadic prince who was hosted by the king of Egypt and made alliances with the kings of city-states throughout Canaan. Moses was raised by a king and went toe-to-toe with a king before establishing a new nation out of a massive band of slaves. Joshua, Ruth, Nehemiah, Ezra, Daniel, each played significant political roles. The judges, the kings, the prophets — all were political players, either governing or holding accountable those in government.
We’ll get to this more later, but if God is establishing his kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven,” we should expect a lot of kingly figures along the way, paired with a lot of prophetic voices correcting them where they got kingship wrong.
2. God’s people are often political outsiders and are good with that.
When we get to the New Testament, none of its main figures occupy positions of political power. Jews were outsiders in the Roman empire and initially Christians were outsiders among Jews. (It can be argued that even those with political power in the Old Testament were still outsiders, being marginal players on the world scene dominated by Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Assyria, and Greece.)
Much of what Jesus said and did seems indifferent to politics, but even he had his political interactions. He drew stories from politics. He intentionally undermined the political-religious establishment, especially in but not limited to the cleansing of the temple. He encouraged the payment of taxes to Rome. He stood before Herod and Caiaphas and accepted the authority of Pilate — but always as a political outsider.
Paul had even greater political engagement, though mostly unwanted as a political prisoner. John, too, was a political prisoner and woven through the Revelation are political themes. And Peter encourages us to “pray for the emperor,” who most likely was Nero at the time he wrote those words and who caused much Christian suffering. There are more, but that will suffice for now.
This outsider perspective is most noticeable in Paul’s words to the deeply patriotic Philippians: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). Instead of Roman citizenship (something the Philippians had and were proud of), Paul asserts a different citizenship. Christ/Messiah is a kingly term; Lord and Savior were titles that were applied to caesar. Paul asserts a different government. That leads us to the third point
3. Jesus proclaimed a different regime — the kingdom of God — the basic orientation of all biblical faith.
If there was one thing that Jesus proclaimed, it was the kingdom of God. Like his cousin John, he preached it. He told parables about it. He prayed it, putting it right in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer.
For Jesus, God is King and all authority derives from him. This has many implications. Among those is that every civic ruler rises and falls beneath the hand of God. This is why the rest of the New Testament writers, as noted above, call on the followers of Jesus to pray for and obey civic authorities.
4. Under God’s reign, human communities and all creation flourish, while chaos and anarchy are defeated.
The biblical vision of society is one where God’s order redeems what is chaotic and makes it fruitful, life-giving, blessed. We see this right for the very beginning. Literally.
In Genesis 1, we see God enthroned and speaking order out of chaos. God exerts authority. God creates order. God gives shape to the shapeless. God gives structure and meaning and purpose. God gives life and encourages the spread of life. God gives rest and peace and hope. God ensures the future. This is God’s intention in creation, an intention that naturally extends to society.
Politics is the right rule of a community (the Greek word polis means city but extends to society). Done well, it cares for God’s creation.
5. God stands with those who use his authority well and stands against those who abuse it.
The entire Bible shows how deeply God is involved with politics, since politics is woven through all of human affairs and God is deeply involved with humanity. Throughout the Bible, we see God making laws, establishing nations, raising up specific kings and civic administrators, taking down specific kings and administrators, critiquing the policies of specific regimes, and promoting something called the kingdom of God. A significant amount of the Old Testament narrative deals with the upper echelon of political power — kings, judges, prophets, tribal leaders.
At the same time, God’s purposes seem to run counter to those who are in political power more often than not. And God’s ways seem to fly under the radar of the world’s leaders. Sometimes a pharaoh will recognize and deal with a Joseph or a Moses, a Cyrus with a Nehemiah, or a Nebuchadnezzar with a Daniel and his friends, but most of the time they won’t even notice the world-changing actions of God going on right under their noses, like Jesus in a manger.
Too often, the Scriptures show us those in power actively standing against the agents of God. Pharaoh against Moses. Daniel getting tossed into a den of lions. Jesus getting crucified. Paul getting imprisoned. And that’s barely scratching the surface. It’s rampant.
6. The Scriptures don’t expect a whole lot from politicians and yet political systems are respected and upheld as God’ agents for human communities to flourish.
What I find interesting is that the biblical characters work with the political systems they’re under and do so with respect, and yet they don’t expect a whole lot out of them. (I’ve written elsewhere about the book of Daniel and its approach to living in a hostile political environment.) Even as he is going through the rigged-against-him conviction process, Jesus is remarkably considerate to Pilate and the chief priest.
When we look back at the kings of Israel and Judah, we find them to be a collective mess. The vast majority are considered to be not just poor leaders, but evil in their deeds. (It’s interesting to note that while Sunday school teachers lump Saul in with the evil kings, the biblical narrator never uses the same language of judgment about him as it used about the list below. The same lack of judgment is true of the mixed reigns of David and Solomon.) Just to show how bad they were, here’s a list, with the biblical judgment on their rule:
Kings of Judah in order of reign:
• Rehoboam — did evil
• Abijah — did evil
• Asa — did right
• Jehoshaphat — did right
• Jehoram — did evil
• Ahaziah (Jehoahaz) — did evil
• Athaliah (Queen) — did evil
• Joash (Jehoash) — good young, evil old
• Amaziah — good young, evil old
• Uzziah (Azariah) — did right
• Jotham — did right
• Ahaz — did evil
• Hezekiah — did right
• Manasseh — did evil
• Amon — did evil
• Josiah — did right
• Jehoahaz — did evil
• Jehoiakim — did evil
• Jehoiachin — did evil
• Zedekiah — did evil
Kings of Israel in order of reign:
• Jeroboam 1 — did evil
• Nadab — did evil
• Baasha — did evil
• Elah — did evil
• Zimri — did evil
• Tibni — did evil
• Omri — did evil
• Ahab — did evil
• Ahaziah — did evil
• Jehoram (Joram) — did evil
• Jehu — mixed
• Jehoahaz — did evil
• Jehoash (Joash) — did evil
• Jeroboam 2 — did evil
• Zechariah — did evil
• Shallum — did evil
• Menahem — did evil
• Pekahiah — did evil
• Pekah — did evil
• Hoshea — did evil
It’s astounding, isn’t it? The list is overwhelmingly bad. And this is the view of the leaders of God’s own people. What do you think the biblical perspective is on the leaders of the rest of the nations?
Now, here’s a list of the Presidents of the United States. Why don’t you go through the list and mark the ones you think are bad Presidents? Would the percentage of bad Presidents match the percentage of “did evil” kings from the list above?
For some reason, we expect more of our political leaders in the United States than the Scriptures do of the leaders of God’s own people. Maybe it’s because we choose our own leaders that we are more committed to thinking of them as good. We wouldn’t pick bad leaders, would we?
But the truth of the matter is that when I think critically, I’m not happy with any of the choices I’ve made in presidential elections. I don’t like to admit it, but I’m part of the problem.
7. Our leaders mirror out spiritual ill-health back to us.
In the book of Judges, not one of the judges comes out smelling sweet. Each has a tragic flaw (expect for the barely mentioned ones). And their flaws reveal the spiritual flaws in the people themselves.
Too often, we get what we deserve from them. They reflect our values.
So, when we look at the political landscape around us, we shouldn’t be as shocked as we act. What we have offered to us as political leaders are the very options we’ve created for ourselves as a culture.
And not only shouldn’t we be shocked, we shouldn’t be stressed. Well, not too stressed. All the way through the Scriptures, we are shown that God fulfills his good purposes for the world regardless of who governs human communities at the time. And both Daniel and Revelation share the message that though our current human regimes may be dastardly, God is moving history to a healed, whole, and glorious new era.
8. No matter what is going on, God is on his throne and his purposes are being accomplished.
So, chill out.