First Century Politics and the Church
In the first century, Roman politics played a disastrous role on the new testament church. In July of 64 AD a huge fire raged through 10 of the 14 districts of Rome. Nero was the emperor then and public support of him was at an all time low. In an effort to divert attention from himself for the disaster, he chose to blame it on the Christians. He ordered Christians to be thrown to the dogs and burned alive as lights for the streets at night. Nero used politics to save his own skin and countless innocent Christians died because of it.
Emperor Domitian, son of Vespasian declared himself a God on earth. He entrusted the imperial cult, sometime known as the Concilia, to enforce worship of himself. This was done as a political move to help bolster his popularity among the citizenry of Rome. This was not a big deal to the poly-theistic culture of Rome, but to a Christian, worship of anyone but Jehovah was the equivalent of spiritual fornication against God and was forbidden. The pagan Roman Citizenry simply viewed the worship of Domitian as just another god among many and the attempts to force the worship of him on the citizenry was met with little resistance. Except for the Christians.
The Jews hated the Christians and ever vigilant for the opportunity to persecute them saw this as an opportunity to rid themselves of them. They were all too happy to report the Christians to the Roman authorities and many many innocent Christians paid for this with their lives. Roman and Jewish politics working together very nearly destroyed the Lord’s church from the face of the earth.
This all happened after the establishment of the church. So what about before the church came into existence? What did the political scene look like then? Jesus Christ was on earth and working His earthly ministry among the Jewish nation. It had political factions as well. There were three major political parties.
The Essenes owned no private property, but that they had pooled all of their resources into a common fund that was distributed to the individual members as each had need. Members labored daily for wages that were contributed to the common treasurer to buy the necessary provisions for the group. Not only was food for the entire group purchased from the common fund, but also clothing, which continued to be the property of the group.
All Essenes were dressed with garments made of only one kind of material. Furthermore, those who were ill or aged were treated at the common expense and given the same thoughtful care that parents might expect of children. Hence it was possible for Essenes with no children to live to a comfortable old age.
Some Essenes insisted that marriage was forbidden. They were happy to raise children given to them from others. Many of them thought that marriage led to unrighteousness, and that no woman was faithful. Women were said to divert an Essene’s attention from his primary concern. Those who did marry limited their relations with their wives to only that which was necessary to produce children.
They were the strictest of all the sects on keeping the Sabbath. They were so strict that even going to the bathroom on the Sabbath was discouraged. They would often times never get out of their beds on the Sabbath unless they absolutely had to.
One very interesting characteristic they had was that slavery was strictly forbidden. They believed in the equality of all men therefore they would not personally own slaves. This is only a thumbnail view of their beliefs. A full review would take more time than we have. The point that we are making with this topic is that this party of individuals held beliefs and practices which were contrary to the law of Moses and to the gospel age which was coming on the scene at the time of Christ.
The Sadducees were essentially aristocrats. They dominated the higher echelon of the priesthood, and many Sadducees who were not priests held positions of authority as lay elders in the Sanhedrin. Thus the difference between the Sadducees and the Pharisees was not a simple one of priests versus laymen Many Pharisees were also priests — mostly of the lower ranks, but probably some even in the upper levels. Rather, the Sadducees derived their power from their class, while the Pharisees derived theirs from learning. Josephus characterized the Sadducees as “men of the highest standing” As a result of their high social status the Sadducees were dominated by political interests, and in these areas they were rigidly conservative, it naturally being in their best interest to maintain the status quo. Maintaining the status quo necessarily entailed collaboration with the Roman occupiers, by whom their power was delegated, and for this self-serving policy the people generally despised the Sadducees. The Sadducees’ strict policies of law and order, described as “heartless” or “savage” in contrast to the “leniency” of the Pharisees, appeased the Romans and kept the Sadducees in power. Understandably they found any popular movement threatening, especially if it had political overtones as in the frequent messianic uprisings. Jesus’ statements about a Kingdom (and Himself as king in any sense) was highly alarming to the Sadducees because it was understood as a call for radical changes in life-style.
In contrast with the Pharisees, the Sadducees’ rejected the authority of oral tradition. As priests they insisted on strict observance of the law of Moses as it was recorded. Oral tradition meant nothing to a Sadducee.
One big difference between the Sadducees and the Pharisees was that the Sadducees denied the resurrection of the body. They believed there was not such thing as an angel or a spirit. cf. Acts 23:8, “For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both.”
The Pharisees were better schooled in the law than the Sadducees but they also insisted that oral tradition which had been passed down from Moses was as authoritative as scripture.
Many of the Pharisees were scribes also, though most were not. This accounts for the NT reference to two groups, scribes and Pharisees, along with occasional mention of “scribes of the Pharisees” (Mark 2:16; Acts 23:9). A Pharisee was usually a layman without scribal education, whereas a scribe was trained in rabbinic law and had official status. The Pharisees and scribes observed and perpetuated an oral tradition of laws handed down from the former teachers and wise men of Israel. This oral law, or Halakah, was highly venerated by the Pharisees and scribes. They taught that it had been handed down from Moses and was to be given the same respect as the written laws of the Pentateuch. The Pharisees sought to fulfill the injunction of Leviticus 11:44 and Exodus 19:6: to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. Their goal was to replicate the laws of temple purity in the home.
As interesting as this is, the one thing we need to get from this is that none of them were scriptural. All of the ones mentioned and others were corrupted with the ideals and opinions of men. There were more than three sects but for this lesson, we are looking at these three. All three of these sects and the others exercised political power to get what they wanted. They used whatever political means at their disposal in order to gain power. It was all about power. Power was sought by each group and the pursuit of it was more important to them than the truth. They were willing to compromise what is right in order to gain what they want. Is this starting to sound a little bit familiar? One group is in power and they don’t want anything to change. The other group wants to be in power so they are all about radical changes and somewhere along the line, truth is compromised, lies emerge and the way of God is somewhere in background. They’ll call on God if it serves their purpose but they don’t really care about serving Him, what they really want is power and control.
These are all human ideals and there are literally hundreds of them who either have existed in the past or still exist to some degree or exist in full force. None of them align completely with the word of God. None of them put God first. None of them have any authority whatsoever to direct the life of a Christian. Why?
Christians live by a simple set of rules.
1 Peter 2:9
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light:
Christians are a nation of people to themselves. We have a king who is already in absolute power: Matthew 28:18, Jesus says, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” No need to try and make power grabs because Jesus Christ is already in charge and that’s not going to change.
So what happens when politics enters into the church? One glaring result too easy to pass up is Roman Catholicism. That is what happens when people who want to grab power enter into the church. You suddenly start having people who claim more authority than Jesus gives them. Who has all authority? Jesus. So where does that leave the leaders of churches like the Roman Catholic church and others who have earthly leaders who are never mentioned in scripture? It leaves them outside the authority of God.
Christians serve Christ who is the king in absolute authority. The law of Moses was more than a religious law. It was also the Jewish constitution or Jewish civil law as well. That has been done away with in the present age and Christians are expected to abide by the civil laws of whatever country they live in so far as they do not conflict with the law of God. That’s where the line is drawn.
Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work,
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.
1 Peter 2:13-15
Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme,
14 or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.
15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.
We are to live under the authority of whatever government we live under. But what if that government wants us to do something that is contrary to God’s law. That is very simple.
The Jewish High Council ordered the Apostles not to teach about Jesus in Jerusalem and Peter and all of the apostles said in Acts 5:29
“We ought to obey God rather than men.” So when a conflict arises between the laws of man and the law of God we must choose to obey God.
1 Peter 2:17
Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.
Going back to Titus 3:1 lets look at verse 2
3 Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work,
2 to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men.
So does this mean we cannot speak evil of the leader of our country?
2 And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth.
3 Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?”
4 And those who stood by said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?”
5 Then Paul said, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.'”
Paul was quoting the old covenant, but we must acknowledge and be aware that Paul was not living under the old covenant. This event happened well after the cross and Paul called him a whitewashed wall and apologized for it after he was told who he was speaking to.
John the Baptist looked Herod right in the eyes and told him his relationship with his brothers wife was wrong. That admonition cost him his life but he did not sin in doing that. Peter faced the Jewish high council and refused to obey them. Paul faced Herod Agrippa and very nearly converted him to Christianity.
There is a proper way to do things. Christians must speak against sin. Christians are expected to point it out and rebuke it whenever and wherever the opportunity arises. 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” And we certainly must teach against sin in our assemblies. Our assemblies are when one man stands up and teaches from the word of God and that cannot be done without conflicting with the policies of civil government from time to time. No civil government on earth is completely scriptural. No manmade ideal or political party is scriptural either. They all fall short somewhere because they are manmade. Our duty as Christians is to oppose evil wherever it is but to do it in a proper fashion.
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” We cannot just bury our heads in the sand and ignore it. We are in conflict with the powers of of this earth where they are in opposition to the will of God.
But this can be, and must be done without reviling or evil speaking about those who are in leadership roles. For example to say an administration is wrong to endorse things like homo-sexual marriage and abortion is not speaking evil of them. That’s the truth and every Christian’s duty is to the truth. John the baptist did it, Peter did it, Jesus did it and we must do it too. That’s not politics, that’s Christianity. That’s obeying God rather than man.
Now there is a line that must not be crossed. While identifying and rebuking error are scriptural practices, we can go too far and transgress God’s word in this respect. An example of going too far would be “Those Sadducees are just ruining our way of life. Did you know those stupid idiots are so conservative that they refuse to give up the power granted them by the Romans.” We don’t call our leaders out by name and revile them publicly. We don’t call them names or refer to them derogatorily. They are appointed to power by the providential workings of God. He has a plan and he is executing it. Our duty is to accept that and to go about our lives as Christians. We are to exercise self restraint, patience and virtue wherever we go. We are to render unto Caesar those things which are Caesar’s, giving honor where it is due.
When the time comes for a rebuke of a policy of government such as abortion or same sex marriage, we do it gracefully, honorably and factually. We leave politics out of it entirely and we certainly do not use reviling speech and engage in conduct unbecoming a Christian.
Politics are nothing more than man made ideals. In the Lord’s church, we do not engage in manmade ideals. Those who have in the past do not even resemble the new testament church any more. politics have been the cause of untold havoc within the church and unspeakable atrocities on human kind. In the Lord’s church, we abandon all manmade creeds, ideals and opinions and we adhere to the word of God only. The word of God is our only authority for what we believe, what we practice and how we live.
As individuals we all have our own ideas on how a secular government should be run. That’s not religion, that’s something secular and we as Christian must live under the authority if both God and man where man does not conflict with God. As such, Christians are strangers living in a foreign land. Think of it like this. An American who travels to Europe is still an American but while in Europe that American is subject to European law. Christians have their citizenship in heaven, (Philippians 3:20), We are sojourners in a foreign land (1 Peter 2:11). This world is not our home, we’re just a passing through. But while we are here, we must obey and honor the laws of this land in so far as they do not conflict with the word of God. We live in this world for now, but we are not of this world. We do not identify ourselves with secular manmade ideals. There’s no such things as Christ-ocrats or Christ-apublicans. We may identify to some degree with a man made ideal as to how secular government should be run but we must never ever allow that to come between us as members of the Lord’s body.
People are sensitive about their ideals. Maybe too sensitive sometimes. I’m guilty of that and I have been taught better by members of my very congregation. I have learned not to allow my ideals to get between me and my brothers in Christ. As a citizen of heaven, I’m not going to get into an argument with a fellow Christian on how things ought to be run here on earth. That’s not my concern. I’m a Christian only. My job is to live right and do what I can to reach the lost. I’m not interested in converting anyone to my ideals. I am interested in converting my ideals conform with God’s. And in helping others to do the same.
Christians should work together as a family to try and reach the lost. Let’s check our ideals at the door and try not to be too sensitive about them if someone else steps on ours. Let’s strive to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. And be sensitive to the feelings of others as well and do everything we can not to hurt one another. We are Christians. We have something that no one else in the world has. We have hope. We have love. We have Christ. Therefore we have everything we will ever need. Let us not become entangled again in the affairs of this world.
I said this lesson would be on the role of politics in the Lord’s church. I said that could be answered with a single word. That word is… Nothing.