Is All Of Life Political?

Search for the phrase “all of life is political” and one finds not a few results. We expect such a sentiment to be very popular among mon-Christians, whose hope is focused on this life and this world. Remarkably, however, Christians are among those who use it most frequently. This is remarkable because there is a prima facie (i.e., what seems to be the case initially and is reasonably accepted as true until proven otherwise) evidence in Scripture that primary focus of Christians is not to be this world.

My Kingdom Is Not Of This World

When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus if he was King of the Jews, our Lord replied, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36; ESV). When the Jewish authorities tried to trap him by questioning him publicly about his loyalties, our Lord replied, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21; ESV). Whose picture was on the coin? Caesar’s (Matt 22:21). The coin is Caesar’s. If he demands it, give it to him. Your soul, however, is God’s. He said something similar in the Sermon on the Mount: “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matt 5:40–41). Contra those who teach that the Sermon on the Mount is “not for today,” the church has always understood the Sermon on the Mount to be God’s Word for his church until his comes.

Our Citizenship Is In Heaven

The Apostle Paul taught the same thing in his letter to to the church at Philippi

Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself (Phil 3:17–21; ESV).

The enemies of whom he wrote were the Judaizers, which is clear from the beginning of the chapter. Paul says that though they postured as religious people, in fact, “their god is their belly.” They glory in their circumcision and law-keeping. Paul gloried in Christ’s circumcision for him (Col 2:11—12). Where Paul once reveled in his status a Hebrew of Hebrews, Pharisee of Pharisee, i.e., in his law-keeping, he now reveled in Christ’s law-keeping for for him (Rom 5:12–21).

Though they postured as religious, the Judaizers, who sought to earn God’s favor by their good works (even if it was cast as cooperation with grace), had their eyes focused on this world. They had made themselves enemies of the cross. They were ashamed of the cross but Paul boasted in the cross. Of course it was entirely natural to be ashamed of the preeminent symbol of the Roman humiliation of the Jewish people but it was supernatural to understand that, by his death on the cross, Jesus had delivered his people from all the power of the Devil, accomplished all righteousness and salvation.

The citizenship of Paul’s Jewish opponents was on earth. As our Lord said, “they have their reward.” Though some of them (especially the Pharisees) hated their Roman oppressors, some of them curried favor with the Romans and enjoyed a certain degree of favor. Judaism was a legal religion. It had official standing in the Empire. Christianity did not and the Jewish opponents of the Christians were at pains to point out to the Roman authorities that the Christinas, even if most of them were Jewish, were not to be considered Jews and their religion was not to be granted legal status.

So it was quite something when Paul wrote to the Christians at Philippi, who lived in a city with retirees with military and civil service in the Roman Empire, that, as Christians, their citizenship is in heaven. That must have been a bracing truth to accept. Caesar is our king on this earth but Jesus is the ascended Lord, reigning over all things, even Caesar. Though he was crucified, Jesus was raised on the third day. He ascended into heaven, and poured out his Spirit at Pentecost. He had revealed himself on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9) to the Paul and drafted him into the service of the ascended King Jesus. Caesar, through his governor Pilate, had crucified Jesus but Caesar was nothing but a pawn in the hands of the King of Kings.

Defining Our Terms And Ordering Our Priorities

Is all of life political? Of course it depends upon what one means by “politics” and whom one has in mind. Of course Christians lived in Philippi. Some of them had served the Empire. Quite probably some of them had shed blood in the service of the Empire. That is a reality. Their earthly citizenship was important but it was not ultimate. If politics means something like the organizing of common life by natural laws, civil authorities, and ultimately coercion (whether via a monarchy, a republic, or a democracy) then, for Christians, no, all of life is not political.

Christianity cannot be “immanentized” (to borrowed a word from political theorist Eric Voeglin). Christians serve in earthly politics, they seek to persuade their neighbors to pursue just laws and policies, but their loyalties are twofold because they belong to what John Calvin called a “twofold kingdom” (duplex regimen) and there is a hierarchy among the two aspects of God’s twofold government of the world: our first loyalty is to Christ and his heavenly, transcendent kingdom which has long outlasted Caesar’s, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and will outlast every other kingdom and empire on this earth. Christ’s Kingdom is composed of members of every tribe and language, people and nation (Rev 5:9).

Indeed, it is when Christians recognize and order their lives, passions, and interests according to this hierarchy that they are of any value to the earthly polities. When we (and especially the visible church) become just another earthly political interest group, we lose our saltiness. Our Lord says, “ “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matt 5:13; ESV). For Christian, if our politics is in heaven, then yes, all of life is political but in the way that people typically intend.

R. Scott Clark

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  1. I just wanted to add to the discussion of this excellent essay: Augustine gives us a definition of a people in The City of God that is very helpful:

    [L]et us say that a ‘people’ is an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love. In this case, if we are to discover the character of any people, we have only to examine what it loves. If it is an assembled multitude, not of animals but of rational creatures, and it is united by a common agreement as to what it loves, then it is not absurd to call it a ‘people’, no matter what the objects of its love may be. Clearly, however, the better the objects of this agreement, the better the people; and the worse the objects, the worse the people.

    Augustine, The City of God, 19.24, 960. Trans. Dyson, (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

    From Augustine’s viewpoint, politics would be how a people sorts through, protects, and prioritizes their objects of love. And in this sense, everything in politics falls under the two great commandments with a focus on love of neighbor in temporal matters. Thinking of politics this way also allows us to address the ‘political’ titles of God as king and the Christian title of heavenly citizen and the impact of the dual political systems that Christians operate in.

    Non-Christians tend to intuitively recognize that Christians have loves outside of this world. And we as Christians, as long as we act like Christians, are a fundamental threat to political systems intentionally closed to the possibility of King Jesus. Christians are supposed to be non-manipulatable and impossible to coerce on some subjects.

    So, if we properly define politics as loving God with all over your being and loving your neighbor as yourself within our providentially assigned earthly “assembled multitude” politics is life. And politics historically leads to the persecution and death of Christians, because we love and serve King Jesus.

    • Hi Shane,

      I thought about engaging with Augustine but decided against it for length.

      I disagree with him. I don’t think the state can do anything about helping people to organize objects of love. This definition, as a applied to the state, confuses the covenants of works and grace. This definition might apply to the church, insofar as it is a politia, a community as defined above, but I don’t want Nero or his subordinates trying to sort out these things. I want them to do only what they are obligated to do by nature and no more.

      As to Christians being a threat to the order, the earliest Christians made exactly the opposite argument. Paul appealed to his natural rights as a Roman citizen but otherwise the only thing the Christians ever said in the NT was to honor the King, pray for him, and pay taxes. The early post-Apostolic Christians (e.g., Diognetus, Justin, & Irenaeus) explicitly told pagan, secular magistrates that the Christians were no threat to the existing political order. They only asked to be allowed, implicitly, to distinguish the sacred from the secular.

      It was the Roman pagans who refused to distinguish them, who conflated obedience to the Roman gods with good citizenship. The Christians argued that they could be good, faithful Roman citizens or at least resident aliens, without paying homage to the gods. Justin invited the Romans to investigate the Christians and promised that the church would discipline more severely than the Romans would the Christians found to be offending. That’s saying something since the Romans might well put to death such offenders.

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