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Here’s what I think about something and I don’t care if you think I’m wrong.

One of the things that I find fascinating about the Old Testament is how the power of the king was kept in check (at least theoretically). A king’s word wasn’t automatically law. A king’s will was not automatically the will of God. Rather, a king was held to a standard higher than and outside of himself.

That external standard is two-fold: the covenant stipulations given to Moses (Torah) and the word of the prophets.

Concerning Torah, it gets a bit tricky, because the most explicit reference to the king’s subjection to Torah is in Deuteronomy 17, though presented as the words of Moses (as is the rest of Deuteronomy), probably reflects a later situation—namely the late 7th century and the time of King Josiah.

But still, I don’t think that the idea of the covenant made by God with the people through Moses was a new idea in the 7th century, but rather was part of Israel’s self-understanding for much longer that gets “codified” later.

Concerning the prophets, they weren’t predictors of a far distant future time, but conduits for the will of God for very present problems, often focused on the abuse of power by kings or priests. So think of the prophets as part of this check on power.

What’s tricky here is that the prophets rarely (ever?) appeal to the Torah for support when calling kings to account—which is one reason why modern biblical scholars have tended to argue that Torah is later than the prophetic word.

There’s a lot of truth to that—not there there were no “standards of law” before the onset of the prophetic voice, but only that there was no one officially sanctioned chapter-and-verse body of laws for the prophets to appeal to. The prophets who spoke during Israel’s monarchy had no Torah in the sense in which we know it.

Anyhoo, we won’t get into all that here. I just think it’s interesting and vitally practical in this day and age to think of the Torah from this perspective—as a means of holding power in check, especially if we bring the Jesus angle into it (as mediated through Paul and the book of Revelation).

At least part of what it means for Jesus to be the super-fulfillment of Torah and the prophetic role is his ultimate rule over all rulers, all political regimes—a point made at great length in the book of Revelation. The Gospel, in other words, is the standard by which the rulers are judged. Not so much on the level of personal piety but on the level of how their rule and their actions affect people.

Those who follow Jesus have an obligation to voice their opposition to corrupt rule, and to never allow the Kingdom of God to become enmeshed with political agendas.

Like the prophets of old, we have the obligation to be sure that justice, peace, and righteousness remain the higher standard by which the state is held accountable rather than aiding and abetting the state to redefine and co-opt that standard.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood says:

    Thanks, Pete. To me, this speaks to the need for us to have prophets. Not the “God is releasing angels of harvest in response to Donald Trump’s prayers” or “We had a hurricane because some people are in favor of gay marriage” kind of prophets, but those who are gifted in looking at our current corporate situation and bring God’s warning, direction, and encouragements into it via the prophetic voice.

    They need the Spirit and guts.

  • VAvoter says:

    This is the best way to start a blog post I’ve ever seen: “Here’s what I think about something and I don’t care if you think I’m wrong.”

    I think I’m tracking with you. Though what does it mean for the church to be enmeshed in political agendas? If a church organizes to advocate for anti-racist policies, or affordable housing, or support of sustainable environmental policies, does that make them enmeshed in political agendas? I definitely agree that churches shouldn’t be tools of the Democrats, Republicans, or others.

    Are you talking about the doctrine of the spirituality of the church? I can understand the need for the church to remain non-partisan, but that doctrine also has a dark history that has looked the other way while our country has done some bad stuff.

  • Ben Cauble says:

    Pete, I think this is a really important area to consider. From a more conservative angle (my upbringing) Torah and some sort of set-in-stone ruleset is at the heart of *any* “authoritative” word. Anyone who speaks somehow derives their authority by appealing to an already established set of rules or content. However, what I’m coming to see is that what conservatives may view as some sort of authoritative revelation from God about how they are to operate in the world is perhaps much more a record of how humans have understood themselves and God on an ongoing basis. So the prophets of old are actively engaged in addressing current problems by applying their current understanding of God. Thus the movement/shift in perspective over the story(ies) of Israel. If we let go/release our death grip on a “once and for all” revelation, than perhaps we can make more progress at figuring out what God wants us to do in our own current environment. I think we can learn a lot about how we should live in the world when we stop evaluating *everything* that is said solely by what has already been said…It seems to cut down “sola Scriptura” in the reformed sense, but it’s clear that in the past I’ve made an idol of the text anyway.

  • Lisa Gossman-Steeves says:

    Bravo. Many of the people in my sphere cannot conceive why religion and politics should not go together hand and hand. They do not understand that the two entities cannot mix because of the degree of power that it gives one over the other depending on which way the wind blows. I do believe that Christians have an obligation to speak out against corruption, as you say, but we also have an obligation to do proper research so that what we say isn’t informed by Facebook memes and poorly researched news articles. Other capable Christians also have an obligation to follow Jesus into the political realm without using faith as a weapon against others. Our faith should guide our decisions, and because we and others have free will (yes, I realize that this could open a can of worms), we must respect the opinions of others even if they disagree with our own. We owe this to God. God has done so much for us. We do not want to make the Almighty a laughingstock by our example. Great start to the post, BTW.

  • gingoro says:

    Watching Alabama I though evangelicals were called to a lower standard. Maybe I miss something being an alien and not a US citizen.

  • JesusMan says:

    Need help. Like the topic, but I can’t see the application.

    I was tracking with everything but the part about judging rulers by the gospel standard.

    Jesus’s gospel is that if we use our talents, forgive, love, pray, live by the spirit, put others above us, avoid sinning, etc we’ll experience the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, here and now (amen). I’m not really interested in a government or ruler doing those things or encouraging me to do those things. Taking care of the widow or orphan – Ok maybe here, but here the issue is should the govt do it or should the govt provide incentives for others to do it. I would rather not have the govt ‘do’ anything. Ruling is a talent (like a physician or architect) – i want a good architect (who is also a good person), but I ultimately judge based on the quality of the drawing.

    How I judge my ruler is: 1) protection from bad guys, 2) common infrastructure (roads, air traffic), 3) honest financial systems for commerce, 4) justice so crime doesn’t pay, and 5) protection of individual liberties. I”m not sure those are really the same as the gospel.

  • JesusMan says:

    Need help. Like the topic, but I can’t see the application.

    I was tracking with everything but the part about judging rulers by the gospel standard.

    Jesus’s gospel is that if we use our talents, forgive, love, pray, live by the spirit, put others above us, avoid sinning, etc we’ll experience the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, here and now (amen). I’m not really interested in a government or ruler doing those things or encouraging me to do those things. Taking care of the widow or orphan – Ok maybe here, but here the issue is should the govt do it or should the govt provide incentives for others to do it. I would rather not have the govt ‘do’ anything. Ruling is a talent (like a physician or architect) – i want a good architect (who is also a good person), but I ultimately judge based on the quality of the drawing.

    How I judge my ruler is: 1) protection from bad guys, 2) common infrastructure (roads, air traffic), 3) honest financial systems for commerce, 4) justice so crime doesn’t pay, and 5) protection of individual liberties. I”m not sure those are really the same as the gospel.

  • Ross says:

    I think most people hold rulers to account against some standards or other. We all feel they should rule well and rightly, but how this may work out will vary from person to person. We all feel the “injustice” when we are affected negatively by the “rulers” and many of us have a conscience that grates when we see others unjustly treated by the “rulers/state/whatever”.

    I presume your point, at least in part, would challenge those who claim to hold the “gospel” as the highest standard and then do something stupid like only voting republican or only supporting someone just because they hold a “pro-life” stance regardless of all their other stances.

    Some feel that religion should not interfere with politics and although I support the separation of state and church, I recognise that one’s own “religion” cannot possibly be held separate from politics.

    It must be very difficult to try and love and follow God in the political sphere and personally I think that to truly hold God’s standards it will be impossible to get anywhere in modern politics. Compromising to hold the party line and pretending to have a real clue about the World will probably disqualify any honest person from high office.

    I think the true believers necessarily will be outside politics or on the fringes of political society prophetically shouting at the power-mongers to try and bring some element of justice to the situation, recognising that fickle public support may be pulled from under them at any second.

    If Jesus were here today he’d probably still be nailed to a cross, possibly figuratively, for upsetting the apple-cart and trying to hold the powers-that-be to account. Much like what happened 2000 years ago.

  • Occam Razor says:

    A few years ago I heard in an Easter sermon that Jesus died so people wouldn’t have to rely on the government for health care. I think that attitude is evil, but doesn’t make a lot more sense to say that Jesus was an ancient liberal.

    The problem with trying to discern a Biblical view of politics is just what you say about it: it’s written by people with a range of views, and none would correspond to anything remotely like our own form of government.

    In the OT, sure justice is a big deal to most of the prophets, but other writers advocate strict ethnic superiority. Imagine a religious book that tried to combine the views of the alt-right and those who want to open the borders to more immigrants.

    And the writers have no conception of individual rights, even the ones who talk about justice. There are no complaints in the Bible that executing people for differences in political or religious opinions is fundamentally wrong, no conception that women are equals, no conception of economics as we understand it today, no idea that people have the right to choose leaders and so on.

    Our entire economy is built on credit and risk-reward, while as far as I know, the Bible never overturned its denunciation of charging interest. The end view of the Bible writers is largely that God will create a Kingdom on earth filled with justice where people will be treated fairly, that Jews will prevail, but nowhere do they think that people have an inherent right to be free.

    So while I think that it’s good to emphasize the role justice plays in the Bible, I also believe that trying to derive a modern political philosophy from it is just an exercise in cherry picking.

  • Tim says:

    Excellent points.

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