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I had just moved to the Washington D.C. area when the call came from a Christian organization on Capitol Hill, asking if I would be the evangelical along with a Jewish rabbi, Roman Catholic priest, and members of Congress in a press conference intended to foster support for a bill coming before the Senate. I thought that if ever there were an issue to which I should speak, surely this was it. I said “yes!” But then I thought that it might be wise to get counsel from one of our church members, who at the time was a sitting senator. He called back immediately and said, “John, I’m not going to tell you what to do, and I share your convictions on a subject that is very important. But as you pray about your decision, remember that you will have no control over how the press will quote you, and you will be labeled as a conservative advocate. You have been called here to be a minister of the Gospel of the kingdom that transcends political conservatism or liberalism. And as a minister you will have the opportunity over the years to give that Gospel to both conservatives and liberals.” Now, ten years later, I realize how wise his counsel was.
Our calling to preach and teach the Gospel of the kingdom from the whole counsel of God to a complex and broken world, especially to the world of politics, involves living and ministering in the tension of a difficult and delicate balance. We must teach and preach that we live in two kingdoms. Augustine described it as living in two cities — the city of God and the city of man. As Christians we are citizens of the kingdom of God (Phil. 3:20) but are also called to be responsible citizens in our native countries (Rom. 13:1–7). Accordingly, we live in the often painful reality of the imperfect and broken present world, while longing for and looking forward to the perfect and blessed future world of the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21: 1–5). This balanced tension of two-kingdom living should make Christians both passionately hopeful for their certain future and practically helpful in their present context. One day there will be “heaven on earth” but not now — not yet.
So, in the meantime, we must faithfully teach Christians to be helpfully involved in the public square without becoming over-involved and intoxicated with the political power. There is no question but that our Savior expects us to be “the salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matt 5:13–14). Thus, it would be unfaithful and disastrous for Christians to be absent from the public square. But on the other hand, we must resist the temptation to become obsessed with the power of politics and begin to think that we can usher in the king’s kingdom. Though politics is a worthy pursuit, Christ’s kingdom is not dependent upon who’s elected and/or which laws are passed or repealed. In Washington D.C. it’s easy to catch “Potomac Fever,” and Christians are not immune to such a distorted view of power. The power of the Gospel of the kingdom of heaven, though weak in this world’s eyes (Matt 13:31–32; 1 Cor. 1:27) is more powerful than the power of any nation. It’s a different kind of power — the power of the Spirit of God through the Word of God in the people of God. As a pastor in D.C. over the years I have been “lobbied” by Christian interest groups to support their worthy causes. But often I have concluded, that though I may personally share their convictions, it would be imprudent and unbiblical for us as a church to join their cause. Sadly, I’ve gotten an “earful” from very disappointed Christians who even questioned my commitment and faithfulness to Christ.
Certainly we must be bold and careful to teach the clear principles of the Word of God, but we dare not teach and preach what Scripture does not teach. We must teach and preach the absolute truth of the Word, though we may not be absolutely clear about how those principles apply in the complex world of political platforms and public policy. Recently as I was preaching through the Sermon on the Mount, I was on the text: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil” (Matt. 5:38–39). I explained in my exposition that Jesus was addressing individuals, not institutions. The lex talionis was not intended to justify personal retaliation. As I was greeting worshipers after the service one said to me, “Thanks so much for the sermon, now I just need to go figure out how it applies to the war on terrorism.” So, we urge our people as responsible citizens of this earthly kingdom to vote and become involved in the public square with biblically informed conviction.
Finally, as a pastor I must realize that I wear “two hats.” I’m an individual Christian and a leader of a congregation that includes the full political spectrum. Thankfully, faithfulness in preaching the gracious Gospel of the kingdom of heaven enables me to minister to both, which is why I’m now glad I called back and declined to participate in that press conference ten years ago.