How do theology and politics relate to one another? Dr. Mark McDowell explains how believers can participate in a vision of politics that cares for all people in view of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
One of the most divisive, controversial, and polarizing topics that we can discuss today is that of politics. One recent political commentator has said that apocalypse—the end times—used to be a religious concept, but now it has become a political possibility. And that sense of heightened rhetoric somewhat reflects where we are today. And it makes it very difficult for believers to assess what is the role, importance, and value of politics and what role we might possibly play as believers. And as we think about that, we can sense that fever pitch not only as we have conversations with loved ones, family, friends, even with colleagues and neighbors, but we see it on social media, too. And I think part of the frustration also resides in the fact that political participation has been shrunken down so much to being a voter. And while voting is incredibly important, it’s not always been that way.
Politics and Theology
Politics is how a community, under its leadership, organizes the goods of society for the welfare of every citizen.And so theology comes in and helps us to assess the conditions of the current moment, the terms that have been set by the modern nation state. And it helps us to recognize that it has not always been this way, that politics actually has a broader vision than what we’re used to. And if we were to run the risk of overgeneralizing, we could say that politics is how a community, under its leadership, organizes the goods of society for the welfare of every citizen. And that’s something that Christians can get behind. That’s a vision of politics that Christians really ought to get behind, because as God loves every image-bearer, believer and unbeliever alike, though in different ways, we can also love unbelievers as we strive for their welfare.
Politics and Christology
One of the key ideas that we think about when we think about how theology and politics relate to one another is actually the doctrine of Christology, the doctrine of Jesus Christ. We worship and follow an ascended Lord who has defeated death, conquered all of his enemies, and presently rules and reigns at the right hand of the Father—is exalted. Dietrich Bonhoeffer confirms this thought when in prison during the 1940s, he said “The task of the church is to summon the entire world to submit to the dominion of Jesus Christ.” And this idea that Christology teaches that we follow the ruler of the cosmos should do two things for us.
The ascension of Jesus Christ relativizes civil authority.One: it should put government and civil authorities in its proper place. They are not the ultimate authority, Jesus is. And so the ascension of Jesus Christ relativizes civil authority, restricts their capacity to rule, reminds them of their job and role. And we see this restricted authority even in the life of Jesus when he stands before Pilate, as recorded in John 19, and reminds Pilate that the very authority with which Pilate was about to have Jesus executed was a delegated authority which he himself gave to Pilate. Every authority has a delegated authority from Christ. The second thing that the ascension teaches us is that because Christ is the ruling exalted Lord, he governs and exercises his dominion through civil authorities for the protection—as well as the punishment of evil—and the welfare of all people.
Applications for Believers
And this should do two things for us as Christians. It should encourage us that Christ is on the throne. The second thing that it ought to do for us: it should empower us to participate in politics in a way that we strive for the good of believer and unbeliever alike, knowing that that is not our end. Our end is also the importance of announcing, proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord. But we never want to pit the physical and spiritual against one another, recognizing the ultimate importance of their enternal destiny, but also seeking to care for their physical welfare too. That should be an encouragement to all of us.