When we follow the ministry of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, we get a picture of the political culture within which He is ministering. Some scriptures give this picture in a much more pronounced way than others. The very birth of baby Jesus triggers a political crisis as Herod is threatened by the idea of a born king. “When Herod heard this, he was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3). The word “disturbed” means to be “troubled, agitated or to stir water”. Contrary to modern or popular culture, the birth of Jesus did not come with well wishes and exchange of gifts, instead, it triggered political chaos, shenanigans, and maneuverings – the King was born! The Magi (wise men from the East who had come to worship baby Jesus) were not just scientists or astronomers, they also had intuitive understanding of the nature of politics and knew how to engage with politicians in the process of scientific mission (i.e. the complexity of relationship between politicians and scientists is not a new thing). After interacting with Herod, the Magi realized that he was threatened by the birth of baby Jesus, and they decided not to give him the full details of the whereabouts of the baby. “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious…” (Matt. 2:16). On the one hand, the word “outwitted” means “to mock and to scoff”, on the other hand, it means “to play sport with or against someone”. By outwitting Herod, the Magi were basically not only putting him in his correct position in relation to the mission (Herod was simply an earthly king within an earthly empire and had no authority to interfere with this divine mission), but they were also outmaneuvering him and showing him that his intelligence structures were not capable of dealing with the situation at hand. We know the end result – Herod was furious and decreed a genocide of babies. This marked the “first Christmas”!
Later on we see Jesus in full action as John the Baptist is about to be executed by another Herod – Herod the tetrarch (see Luke 3:19-20). Confronted by imminent death and considering the impact of his ministry, John sends messengers to Jesus, to ask if Jesus is the Christ (Matt. 11:2-3). In the process of giving a response, Jesus says the following…
Matt 11:7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. NIV
Matt 11:12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 He who has ears, let him hear. NIV
The first thing that Jesus does is to distinguish between the ministers of the gospel of the Kingdom of God and those in king’s palaces. Jesus implies that John is not a man in fine clothes and who enjoys political power over a jurisdiction. John is a prophet! Jesus connects this to another reality, that even though John does not have political authority, but he is able to advance the Kingdom of God. The implication is that even though John has neither enjoyed earthly political authority nor received honour from an earthly king, he has been able to advance the Kingdom of God. From a place of obscurity, in the desert, he has established kingdom advanced, and has influenced masses of people. The Kingdom of God cannot be authorized by earthly kings! And yet like John the Baptist, those who are ministers of the Kingdom of God must accept the fact that they operate within the limitation of the laws and legal authorities of the jurisdictions to which they have been sent by God.
Later, Jesus is confronted by another situation as Pharisees ask a political question, “is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” In answering the question, “Jesus said, “show me the coin used for paying the tax. Whose portrait is this and whose inscription?” Caesar’s, they replied. Then He said to them, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what God’s”” (Matt. 22:15-22). There is no better place to ask this question other than in Jerusalem, a city that was surely under constant surveillance by the Intelligence of Rome. And there is no better company in which to ask this question other than in the company of the Herodians or supporters of Herod, as Matthew 22:16 reveals. This is clearly a political situation playing out.
The answer of the Lord is fundamental for us as church: “give Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. This answer goes beyond the paying of taxes, it provides a kingdom worldview that helps us navigate the constant tension between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. If the coin has a portrait and an inscription of Caesar, then the Jews must acknowledge the authority of the political jurisdiction they find themselves in. Jesus is saying that not only does the portrait of the coin reflect the political authority of a king, but also the responsibility of the one regulating the order of life in that jurisdiction. For a people to have peace and wellbeing within a jurisdiction, someone must assume authority and responsibility over that jurisdiction. Jesus is saying that our honour to Caesar is not in conflict with our honour to God. And our honour to God cannot be hindered by anyone who is sitting on a throne. Jesus is saying that we can exist in the most limiting, brutal and oppressive political regimes, and yet be able to honour God and advance His Kingdom. Like John the Baptist, we can in fact advance the Kingdom of God even though political authorities do not honour or acknowledge us.
Daniel the prophet had earlier written…
Dan 2:20 “Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. 21 He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. NIV
Rom 13:1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. NIV
And the apostle Peter also declared…
1 Peter 2:13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. 16 Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. 17 Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. NIV
In the scriptures above, we are provided with a framework of how to navigate through political authorities and processes. We get the idea that the nature of our citizenship and of political engagement must always seek to promote the values of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, above those of our own interest, Political Party or Political Ideology. We also get the reality in these scriptures that it is God who establishes the king (or a political authority), and it is God who deposes the king. God does not only establish political authority, but He also has a position about the nature, character and conduct of political authority. In navigating political processes, we must therefore be guided by how God deals with kings, as reflected in the examples of the Pharaohs (who were a symbol of political power). In times of a good Pharaoh, church is expected to be a “Joseph”, to offer cooperation, wisdom and resources. But in times of an evil Pharaoh, church is expected to be a “Moses”, to stand for justice and righteousness, and to declare, “let my people go”. The character and behaviour of the one sitting on the throne determine the prophetic position of the church in society.
To further illustrate this point, we see that the story of Christ and His crucifixion reflects this reality that the grand and eternal plan of God flows within earthly, limited and sometimes imperfect political authorities and laws of the nations of the earth.
1 Tim 6:13 In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you… NIV
Acts 2:23 This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. NIV
The full cooperation of the Lord in the crucifixion, to even appear before an earthly authority – Pontius Pilate – a political and judiciary authority that did not even know what truth was (John 18:37&38), became an example of how to advance the kingdom of God in the earth. Jesus was subjecting Himself to the laws of the land. Thus, the crucifixion is a multi-layered experience that reflects the earthly and imperfect judicial process on the one hand, and the eternal plan of salvation on the other. By descending upon a world that was under the government of Caesar and the Roman empire, even the King of the universe was consequently going to be subjected to the kind of judicial process in which He was going to be publicly crucified and hanged on the Cross. But this was in fact the eternal and predestined plan of God, that Jesus would come to be offered as a Lamb for our sins. If this was playing out in modern-day nation-states, instead of the Cross, we would be talking of the rope, electrocution or lethal injection as a symbol of redemption. The point is, just like Christ, church functions in an imperfect world with laws and regulations, to advance a perfect and eternal kingdom. And just like Christ did not interrupt His execution and crucifixion, by trying to raise the issue of his rights as an innocent and falsely accused convict, church cannot seek the authority of the State, to advance a Kingdom that is not of this world, and yet Church must always seek to function according to the laws of the land. This is the tension of kingdom ministry. Like Christ who came in the form of a human, who was born of a woman and under law, to redeem those under law (Phil. 2:7&8, Gal. 4:4&5), Church must be found functioning in the very imperfect and limiting conditions of the earth, in order to redeem those who exist in the same limiting conditions. If the church protests against these earthly conditions and against governments, because she cannot fulfill the Great Commission of the Lord Jesus Christ, then surely she cannot expect ordinary humans and believers to navigate the Kingdom of God in the same conditions.
No Political Authority has power to decree the essentiality of Church
Having reflected on these issues, we must state that there is no earthly king, president or prime minister that has authority to declare church as an essential community or service. Any president or prime minister who stands behind a podium to make such declarations is not only overstepping their authority, but simply does not understand the very existential nature and identity of church. Equally, if church erupts in joy as a response to such proclamations, she is assuming a position that is not only unbiblical, but that may see her “in bed with the Herods”. The trajectory and outcome of this reality is deeply dangerous for the effective functioning of church in society.
The essentiality of the church has already been declared by the King of kings and Lord of lords. Let’s remember whose we are…
1 Tim 6:13 …I charge you 14 to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which God will bring about in his own time — God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords. NIV
Jesus is King: the Greek word for “king” defines one who is sovereign and who is the basis and foundation of power; a monarch.
He is Lord: the Greek word for “lord” defines one who is a master and who possesses authority.
He is the Ruler: this word defines an officer of great authority, a possessor of power and authority who occupies a high position.
Col 1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. NIV
By Him thrones were created: the word “throne” defines a stately seat or sit attributed to kings. In modern terms, these define political constituencies and legal mechanisms (constitutions) upon which presidents and prime ministers exercise their power.
By Him dominions or powers were created: the word “powers” defines dominions, governments, civil power, magistracy. In modern nation-states, this refers to the spheres of the state – i.e. parliaments, the executive and the judiciary.
By Him principalities or rulers were created: the word “principality” defines those who are chief in a political order. It defines he who is chief in time, place or rank; beginning of something or beginning of a line. In modern terms, this word describes those at the beginning of a political process. Originators of law and policies.
By Him authorities or powers were created: this is the Greek word exousia which is used in the Great Commission in Matt. 28:18-20, “all authority has been given to me” and in Luke 10:19, “behold I give you power”. This word means permission, liberty, the right and power to do something, capacity and ability.
This King – Jesus Christ – declared…
Matt 16:18 …I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” NIV
There is no president or prime minister who has the right to put his voice over this declaration. The existence of the church was established by the ultimate President, King Jesus. This is all that the church needs to function in the earth. Any church whose functionality is derived from some proclamation by an earthly authority will be limited in its authority and reach.
As the church deals with the frustrations around coronavirus containment or lockdown measures, she must consider and reflect on the following issues…
It is understandable that any shepherd is currently burning to see the flock and that any church community is burning to return to normal and full operation of its programs and activities.
As we relax the lockdown, there is a point in granting permission to the church ministers and workers involved in the ministry of community relief (churches have now been getting these permissions).
A lockdown aimed at containing the spread of the virus does not constitute infringement of the rights of belief and religion. It is only a prohibition of the right of movement and gathering – these two realities are hugely different. No one has put a gun on anybody to demand that they renounce Jesus as Lord. Neither is the lockdown a permanent reality. The rights of belief and religion have not been violated or affected.
While is it true that church’s inability to engage in biblical practices of corporate worship and public teaching of the Scriptures is limiting, it does not amount to an infringement of the rights of belief and religion, under current circumstances.
To suggest that there is an infringement of freedom of belief and religion under current conditions is not only legally problematic, it is also not consistent with the principles of the New Covenant. We as church must mean what we say. If we have declared that we are not a building but a people or community, then this lockdown window is an opportunity to powerfully demonstrate this principle.
The purpose of the pastor is to empower believers to face conditions such as the one we are faced with in this pandemic. If believers are not able to walk through this experience, this is a reflection on the church, for which the government cannot be blamed.
Any suggestion that church is being targeted and victimized is simply incorrect – other sectors of society (and even other faiths and religions) are going through the same difficulty as church. And any classification of the lockdown as a form of persecution of some kind, is simply an insult to the martyrs of the faith.
Whilst church communities are not able to fulfill their programs currently, under the New Covenant principles and definitions, church is not on lockdown. Believers’ personal faith, worship, prayer and the personal reading of the Scriptures must continue unhindered, until such time that we are able to have public gatherings. Reflecting on the Principles of the New Covenant is paramount in this context.
It is true that the broader challenge of livelihoods applies to the minsters of the gospel as well. And it is also true that as church, we’ve generally accepted a practice in which people do not give their offerings except in church gatherings. There is no doctrinal basis for this – it may be a preference of ours. On the contrary, Paul made arrangements for offerings to be collected prior to gatherings… “Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. 3 Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem” (1 Cor. 16:1-3, NIV). Therefore, the limitation of income of the church due to the inability to collect offerings in the absence of gatherings points to the need for doctrinal and ministry reform within the church. It is not a problem on the side of the government.
Equally, the church must not make its own challenge of division and inability to facilitate transfer of wealth from rich to poor churches a problem of the government. When the early church was faced with economic hardship, it mobilized and organized itself to facilitate transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor. The church did not go to Caesar for help: “During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:27-30, NIV).
In this coronavirus pandemic, church must understand the social and economic conditions of its members and must in fact advocate for these before the government. Church must be like “Esther before king Xerxes”, it must speak not only on behalf of its members but also of the marginalized and vulnerable within society. In this sense, church must practice government, because we are God’s ekklesia – a body of citizens of a free kingdom, called out of the world to govern the conditions of life around us. That is, church must distinguish between advocating for its own organizational interests and advocating for the interests of its people (including the society at large). Church is not the “poor cousin” within the system, she is called to be the expression of the government of God in the earth.
Church must use this lockdown as an opportunity for prophetic and operational reflection on the kind of environment (the new world) that it will be functioning in, post the lockdown.
In times like this, church must appreciate its own complexity as a community of faith. Our biblical heritage is that church is like “a voice in the wilderness”, it does not operate from the palace. The Head of the church was born in a manger, in a time where there was no accommodation in hotels and lodges. There is nothing that prevents the birthing of the Purpose of God, even inside the lockdown. Part of our heritage is that church was born in the streets of Jerusalem, it prayed and worshiped in temples, in homes, by the rivers and in prisons. It was never a part of the established Pharisee order.
Church must refuse the temptation to flex itself through democratic populism. It should not matter whether a dominant section of our population is “Christian” or not. We stand in the midst of the nations not as a democratic community but for the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
Church is not essential by political decree. We are essential because the Lord Jesus Christ says so in the Scriptures. We are not only essential when we have public gatherings. We are essential even when we don’t have public gatherings. We advance the Kingdom of God in lack and in abundance, in limitation and in opportunity, in season and out of season.
Pastor – LivingStones Agency
Visionary Leader – Kingdom Humanity Fellowship
Please follow the links below to access other resources relevant to the current pandemic…
- The Lockdown Debate and the Issue of the Vantage Point
- The Doctrine of Suffering – Part 1
- The Doctrine of Suffering – Part 2
- Covid-19: A Prophetic characterization of the current pandemic (part 1)
- Covid-19: A prophetic characterization of the current pandemic (part 2)
- Restating the foundations of the New Covenant
- Drivers for effective life in the current season of the pandemic
- Doing church in the crisis of coronavirus