I wrote this for CRC-Voices for a thread on church and politics.
Because of our “one square inch” tradition it is important for us to pay some attention to the question of getting specific with the mission of the church. Kuyper of course had his “not one square inch” quote but he also had his “sphere sovereignty” idea. One without the other gets one into trouble.
I think it is noteworthy to reflect on the relationship between Jesus and THE hot issue of his time and place, the Roman occupation of the land of Yhwh, the epicenter of which was Jerusalem and the temple. Many in North America fail to adequately ponder how this conflict polarized Jesus’ context and how Jesus’ ministry stood in stark contrast to the other approaches. Many of us have heard of the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots, Herod, Pilate, and the leaders in Jerusalem. What we fail to realize is that the existence of all of these groups arose out of the Roman occupation of Yhwh’s promised land and especially the temple. The location of the Roman fortress in Jerusalem was no accident if you look on that model of the city from Jesus’ time. It was a statement. There was not separation of “church and state”, politics and religious were one, and in some ways still are.
We might also ask how could all of these factions align in agreement that Jesus should be killed. Even though in many ways the faction Jesus was closest to were the Pharisees, the gospels are full of Jesus intentionally contrasting his ministry with that of the Pharisees. It is probably true that Jesus had to do this because his proximity to the Pharisees in many ways on the political/religious spectrum would naturally bring people who couldn’t understand Jesus’ message to simply hear him as a Pharisee and understand what he was saying in their terms. This is probably why too the Pharisees were both very drawn to Jesus, he seemed like a very likely ally in their agenda and was likely the source of their frustration, confusion and eventually anger at him. Remember that in the book of Acts we learn that a significant number of Pharisees eventually became part of the early church in Jerusalem. We don’t know but it could also be possible that various Pharisee factions were part of the “Judaizers” that Paul and Peter would have to deal with. Remember too that Paul was a Pharisee. This isn’t to diminish his conversion but rather to note that some of the same strengths that Paul possessed, and preparation he received, would become very useful to Paul the disciple of Jesus Christ.
How were Jesus and the Pharisees similar in the light of the culture war of Jesus’ time? Essenes were religious escapists. They were sitting in their desert caves/bunkers awaiting the Lord’s judgment on the whole damn mess. The Zealots were the opposite extreme, radically engagement through violent revolution. The Pharisees were neither. They engaged in protest of Roman occupation and cultural contamination but in a more subtle, passive-aggressive way. They waged a battle for people’s hearts and minds and their battle was centered around symbolic protest and resistance to the Roman way and the inroads it made in their culture. Dietary laws were hedged. Sabbath keeping was mandatory. If they couldn’t beat the Romans with armies, they could build quiet resistance against the Romans, biding their time, awaiting the opportunity until the day when Yhwh would act on their behalf and somehow make a way, perhaps through a new David or Maccabean rebellion or perhaps all the way to the resurrection of the Jewish people and their rulership of the world.
If you understand the Pharisees’ agenda you can begin to understand why the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees played out as it did. Why all the squabbling over Sabbath healings, eating with unwashed hands, eating with “sinners” (read people no complying with the passive-aggressive approach to resisting the Romans by formal religious observance)? To make a long story short, Jesus was soft on Rome in the eyes of the Pharisees, and therefore of course would also be seen that way by Essenes and Zealots. Jesus refused to leverage his following in alignment of the resistance to Rome agenda. The sees of the conflict in the NT church between Judaizers and Gentile Christians were laid here.
Most Christians today understand the line of demarcation between politics and the church as being an issue of “spiritual not political”. In my opinion this is a rather gnostic approach and it really doesn’t work in the NT nor in practice today.
Jesus’ non-participation in the Roman resistance culture war should not be confused with acceptance by Jesus of the Roman way. Nothing could be further from the truth, which is very evident most clearly probably in the book of Revelation. Jesus’ opposition in fact was against both the Roman way and the Pharisees, Essenes and Zealot’s way because according to Jesus these were all expressions of the same way. This was the way of empire, the way of the sword, the way of “power over”, the relational polarity of the age of decay “my wellbeing at your expense”. Jesus was waging war on the way of the world of which the Romans, Pharisees, and every other group were simply armies caught in the ongoing civil war of planet earth. Jesus’ war is against the age of decay itself of which all of these other ways are simply competitive expressions.
The mandate of the church is to announce the end of the age of decay which has already been defeated in the incarnation, cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and to embody that declaration in expressions of the relational polarity of the age to come “your wellbeing at my expense”. When the church takes up the way of empire in order to pursue its agenda it causes confusion and seems to be participating in the ongoing civil war of planet earth. Central to following Jesus is fighting in the way of Jesus and his way of fighting is cruciform. The Roman’s way of fighting was also cruciform but you can understand Jesus way by seeing which side of the cross he was on. pvk