Christ’s Political Theory

Sea of Galilee at Capernum, Israel

This is Chapter Two of The Political Theory of Christ by Jefferson White (2015).

Then Jesus came to them and said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”1

“All authority in heaven and on earth” includes all political authority. Politics is now under Christ’s authority.

But if this is true, how are we to account for the continuing existence of political evil for the past two thousand years? It is Christ who provides us with an answer to this question. He teaches that God permits evil to continue within history for the ultimate sake of the good. This teaching is found in the parable of the weeds or tares. In that parable, an enemy goes out late one night and sows a farmer’s wheat field with weeds. When the farmer discovers what has occurred, he decides to leave the field alone so that the wheat will continue to grow in the midst of the weeds. At the time of harvest, he separates the wheat from the weeds and then burns the weeds. The harvest represents the end of history. The separation of the wheat from the weeds, and the burning of the weeds, represents the final division of humanity into the saved and the damned, followed by the eternal punishment of the damned.2

This is all that is told us. We are not really told why evil must continue for the sake of the good, but only that this is the reason why evil is permitted to continue. Presumably, the full answer to this question is beyond our comprehension, although that has not stopped theologians from trying to provide an answer.

Which prompts a second question: if “all authority in heaven and on earth” is given to Christ, but evil is permitted to continue, just how exactly is Christ’s political authority to be exercised between the time of His resurrection and the end of history? And again, Christ provides us with an answer. In the same statement in which He declares that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him, Christ states: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Therefore all authority on earth has been given to Christ and this authority is to be exercised by his followers, who will now teach the world to obey Christ in everything that He commands. To the extent that the world obeys Christ within history, Christ’s kingdom is, to that extent, established within history.

At this point, an objection might be raised. Didn’t Christ also say that “My Kingdom is not of this world”?3 Doesn’t this statement place a radical limitation upon Christ’s authority, and upon the authority of Christians, within history? This statement would seem to teach that, while Christians are required to live out the meaning of Christ’s kingdom within history, this “living out” must take place by means of a radical separation from the existing political and social order. It is said, by some Christians, that this is the meaning of Christ’s statement that His kingdom “is not of this world.”

But this understanding is wrong. It is wrong because Christ’s statement that “My kingdom is not of this world” is part of a longer statement that clarifies these words. In that longer statement, Christ is responding to Pilate’s accusation that, since Christ claims to be king of the Jews, this must mean that He is a political rival to Caesar. And if Christ is a political rival to Caesar, then He has committed treason against the Roman state and deserves to die.

In response, Christ does not deny that He is king of Israel. Instead, He contrasts the spiritual nature of His Kingdom with Pilate’s misunderstanding of His claim. Jesus also states that Pilate has no authority over Him except the authority that is given to him by God.4 And this means that Christ and Caesar cannot be rivals, since Caesar is subordinate to God. Thus when Christ states that “My Kingdom is not of this world,” this does not mean that He has no authority over the kingdoms of this world. It is because He has complete authority over all of the kingdoms of this world that His kingdom is not of this world.

Since there is only one reality and that one reality is governed by God, politics is not a separate reality that stands apart from God’s authority. Politics is simply one aspect of that reality into which Christ sends His followers to make disciples of all nations. And Christ’s sending of His disciples has radical political implications. Since all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him, Christ has the authority to commission His followers to undertake the mission that He has assigned them. And to the extent that His followers carry out that mission by teaching others to be disciples, they necessarily establish Christ’s kingdom within history, including political history.

Therefore to be a follower of Christ is to be part of a spiritual revolution that has a political component. All serious Christians understand that they live in a morally bent world and that the world will never be made whole until the final return of Christ at the end of history. Therefore every serious Christian recognizes that there are pragmatic limits to any attempt to establish Christ’s Kingdom within history. Christ states that His Kingdom will not come in its fullness of power until the final overthrow of Satan at the end of history. But to the extent that Christians are able to live according to Christ’s teaching within history, and are able to teach others to do so, Christ’s Kingdom is established in the world, including the political world.

This raises another question. What is the pragmatic nature of the relationship between the commands of Christ and the kingdoms of this world? Does such a relationship imply a particular theory of politics? Again, Christ provides us with an answer to this question. Stop any serious Christian in the street today, anywhere in the world, and ask that Christian to declare, in a single sentence, the political teaching of Christ. And that Christian will inevitably reply: “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.”5

It is sometimes argued that this teaching also defines a limit to God’s authority in this world. According to this view, although Caesar is under God’s ultimate judgment, and is sometimes punished by God within history, Christians should refrain from exercising any political authority themselves, since Caesar’s authority is separate from God’s authority. This belief, which is held by a small minority of Christians, holds that believers in Christ are prohibited from exercising God’s authority within the kingdoms of this world. According to this view, Christians must stand completely apart from the political world. It is impossible for a Christian to legitimately exercise political authority.

But again, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of Christ’s political teaching. Let us quote in full the passage where Christ makes the distinction between God and Caesar:

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.6

In this passage, Jesus’ enemies are attempting to pose a question that will get Him into trouble no matter how He answers. If Jesus publicly states that the Jews should not pay taxes to Rome, then that is treasonous information that can be brought to the attention of the Roman authorities. However, if Jesus states that the Jews should pay taxes to Rome, this will offend most of the Jews following Him, since most first-century Jews viewed Roman authority over Israel as illegitimate. For most Jews, God alone was the true ruler of Israel. The very existence of Roman rule over Israel was considered to be an offense to God. But Jesus escapes their trap. He calls their attention to the fact that they have just handed Him a Roman coin, thus demonstrating that they are using Caesar’s money. And if they are faithless enough to use Caesar’s money, why shouldn’t they give back to Caesar what is rightfully his?

It is not immediately obvious that Jesus has just outlined a complete theory of politics. That He has done so is revealed by the historical reality that, two thousand years later, every serious Christian in the world will define Christ’s political teaching as: “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

But what is the political theory that is implied in these words?

In the previous chapter, we saw that God’s continuing intervention in Israel’s political history defined that political history. God’s continuing intervention, and the covenants that shaped those interventions, established a permanent separation of powers between God and Israel, and a separation of powers between the political authorities of Israel and the authority of God’s prophets. Only in Israel did God stand entirely apart from the state, while God’s representatives were also independent of the authority of the state. This was a radically new form of politics that was found nowhere else in the world.

Which prompts the question: now that God has entered history as a human being – as Christ – and Christ commissions His followers to act as His messengers, just how much deeper is this separation of powers to go? For Christ is asserting the existence of an even more radical separation of powers than is found in ancient Israel. The easy mistake is to believe that Christ is teaching that the authority of the believer does not extend to the state, because His kingdom “is not of this world.” But Caesar’s authority, like everything else in existence, comes under God’s authority. And because everything in the world is now under the authority of Christ, the participation of believers in the political order – as believers – becomes inevitable. Although Christ states that there are two authorities in the world, God and Caesar, Christ also states that Caesar is under God’s ultimate authority. Christ then goes on to state, after His resurrection, that His followers must go into the world to “make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Christians are therefore commissioned to transform the world, including the political world.

Now a crucial distinction must be made between the nation of Israel and the church founded by Christ. This distinction is fundamental. In the Israelite political order, the Jewish state and the Jewish people are one thing. They are two aspects of one spiritual community. The Israelites are more than merely a people under God; they are also a nation under God. Indeed, this is why Jesus was confronted with the question about paying taxes to Caesar, since from the Jewish point of view Roman rule over Israel was spiritually, as well as politically, illegitimate. And it was illegitimate because Roman rule was not the rule of God. Only God could legitimately rule Israel. This is why, to the first-century Jewish mind, the primary task of the prophesied Messiah was to reestablish the independence of the Jewish state, which would necessarily mean the overthrow of Roman rule. This is why Christ was being confronted with more than just a question about taxes, since the real question was who would rule Israel, God or Rome.

Christ’s teaching, however, is that the Kingdom that He has come to establish is no longer identified with any political state. Christ radically breaks the connection between the Israelite state and the coming of God’s Kingdom. On the question of taxation, Christ establishes a new distinction between God and Caesar. The spiritual responsibility of the believer is directed toward God, no matter the political circumstances in which he is living. Life is lived from the spiritual outward. Caesar is completely subordinate to this process.

There is another incident in which Christ deals with the question of taxes, which throws additional light on this problem. Let us quote the passage in full:

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

“Yes, he does,” he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes – from their own sons or from others?”

“From others,” Peter answered. “Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”7

Two things are being said here. First, Jesus is teaching that neither He nor His followers are bound by the existing political authorities, which in this instance are the Jewish authorities or the collectors of the Temple tax. The reason why Christ’s followers are not bound to their authority is because all political authority is subordinate to the coming Kingdom, of which Christ and His disciples are the true sons and heirs. Christ states that the sons of the king do not pay taxes, which is why neither He nor His disciples are required to pay the Temple tax. However, Jesus then asserts that they should pay the tax anyway, so as not to offend those who are demanding it. In short, the believer is to tolerate the authorities set over him, and to obey them, not because they have any real authority over him, but simply in order to live on good terms with them.

One finds this understanding of political authority throughout the gospels. Christ proclaims the coming of the Kingdom and treats the existence of the present political world as if it were completely irrelevant to that Kingdom. Christ never teaches that the nature of His Kingdom requires that His followers attain political office or exercise political authority. To the contrary, whenever the subject of politics comes up, Jesus is indifferent to political considerations. That indifference is found even when Christ is on trial for His life, in His refusal to participate in that trial. And this is why, when Pilate questions Him, that Christ states that the only authority that Pilate has over Him is the authority given to Pilate by God.8

Because of Christ’s utter indifference to politics, it is sometimes argued that Christians should also be indifferent to politics. But a close reading of the gospels shows that Jesus is indifferent, not just to politics, but to everything that diverts human attention from the coming Kingdom. For example, when Christ visits the sisters Mary and Martha, Martha remains busy with preparations for the visit while Mary sits down to listen to Him. When Martha complains that Mary is not helping her, Christ bluntly tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better thing.9 On another occasion, a man tells Jesus that he will come and follow Him, but that he must first go and bury his father. Jesus replies, harshly to our modern ears, that the man should let the dead bury the dead, and that he should immediately come and follow Him.10 There are other incidents of this kind. But it should be clear that Christ is not really teaching that we should never prepare for visitors or that we should never bury our dead. Jesus is using these occasions to teach the radical primacy of the Kingdom. Seen in this light, politics is just as important as any other temporal activity, but it is not the reason for which Christ has come. At the same time, the coming of the Kingdom has radical political implications, just as it has radical implications for every other area of life.

The real question is: can the believer in Christ legitimately participate in government? Christ explicitly teaches that the believer can. For example, in the gospels, a Roman Centurion appeals to Jesus to heal his servant. During His ministry, Christ deliberately dealt only with His fellow Jews and avoided dealing with Gentiles since He had been sent by God to Israel to be its Messiah. However, the Roman Centurion who has just asked for help is not only a Gentile, but a Roman military officer. And he not only asks Christ to heal his servant, but declines to have Jesus come to his house to perform the miracle, stating that he is unworthy of such personal attention. He states that, as a man under authority himself, he knows that all that Jesus has to do is to say the word and that his servant will be healed.11

In response, Jesus turns and addresses the Jewish crowd:

I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.12

Christ uses the incident to teach that there will be a great in-gathering of Gentiles with the coming of the Kingdom and also to teach that many Jews will turn away from the Kingdom. Implicit in His statement is the understanding that a representative of the Roman state, indeed of the Roman army, can be a member of Christ’s Kingdom.

This teaching is made even more explicit following Christ’s resurrection, because the first Gentile to become a Christian is yet another Roman Centurion. Peter has a dream in which he is told that there will no longer be any distinction between Jew and Gentile in Christ. Peter is instructed to go to the household of a god-fearing Gentile, the Centurion Cornelius, to baptize him and his family.13 After the baptism, Peter states that God has now shown that He “accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”14 Therefore God not only accepts Gentiles into the Kingdom, but members of the Roman state – including members of the Roman military.

Thus it is clearly permissible for the believer in Christ to participate in government. Or rather, it is as permissible as participation in any other aspect of life. As a member of the Kingdom, every believer must live according to the ethics of the Kingdom no matter what his personal situation. With the baptism of Cornelius, the pagan Roman world begins to be radically reshaped by Christ’s Kingdom. This baptism sets in motion a centuries-long process in which Christians begin to live out their faith within the structure of the pagan Roman state and eventually transform that state. The Roman state comes to reflect, in part, the Christian understanding of the Kingdom.

The very existence of the Christian church thus creates a radically new separation of powers within history. For the first time, a spiritual association – the church – now claims an authority that is completely independent of the authority of the state.

Although pagan Rome is prepared to tolerate most religions, this tolerance ultimately rests on the subordination of every religion to the pagan spiritual ideal that is Rome. And the Roman state soon discovers that the Christian church not only refuses this subordination, but teaches that the Roman state is part of a decaying world order that is now passing away – and soon to be replaced by Christ’s Kingdom. Thus begins a two hundred year duel to the death between pagan Rome and the Christian church. And that duel ends with the creation of a new political order, based upon a radical separation of powers between the Christian church and the Roman state.

Historian of political theory G. H. Sabine: 

The rise of the Christian church, as a distinct institution entitled to govern the spiritual concerns of mankind in independence of the state, may not unreasonably be described as the most revolutionary event in the history of Western Europe, in respect to both politics and political thought.15

With the resurrection of Christ, the political history of the West begins.


All New Testament quotes are from the New International Version.

  1. Matthew 28:18-20
  2. Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43.
  3. John 18:36.
  4. John 18:33-38, 19:10-11.
  5. Mark 12:17.
  6. Mark 12:13-17 See also Matthew 22:15-22 and Luke 20:20-26.
  7. Matthew 17:24-27.
  8. John 19:10-11.
  9. Luke 10:38-42.
  10. Luke 9:59-60; Matthew 8:21-22.
  11. Matthew 8:5-9.
  12. Matthew 8:10-12
  13. Acts 10 and 11.
  14. Acts 10:35
  15. G. H. Sabine, History of Political Theory (1959) 161-162.

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