In April of this year, Shadi Hamid wrote for The Atlantic in an article originally titled “Politics Is the New Religion” that “American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief.”
As church attendance has dwindled, political activism has escalated. The increasingly influential fringes of society agitate for a nationalist ethnostate or a communist utopia—not under the auspices of an end-times supernatural intervention but as the result of coordinated political activity. How are we supposed to live out Yeshua’s gospel in this increasingly polarized political environment? Put simply, what should our politics be?
Followers of Yeshua have an inherently complicated relationship with politics. The phrase “kingdom of heaven” is packed with political significance. A kingdom is a monarchy, a type of government; to be subject to a monarch’s rule is a political reality within which the disciples of Yeshua volunteer to locate themselves. Yet this kingdom is not an earthly reality; Yeshua has no throne in Jerusalem on which to sit. Today, most Christians live under governmental systems that had no analog in ancient times—democracies, republics, and constitutional monarchies. We live in the tension between our allegiance to Yeshua and our responsibility to the secular governments of the nations.
This tension is not always easy to negotiate.
The natural place for us to look for direction is within the pages of Scripture. While the Bible does not specifically anticipate modern-day government structures, it does have broad guidance for the people of God.
The Old Testament
None of us is in a position to start our own country. As we seek to influence the world around us for good, however, we might think to look to the ancient Israelites for a government model that could inform our political decisions. Indeed, the children of Israel experimented with many political systems. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the patriarchs of a tribe; their word was law. Hundreds of years later, Moses, who God called to lead the entire nation of Israel, scaled this system up when he “chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens” (Exodus 18:25). At the top of the hierarchy was God himself, with Moses as his representative, and seventy elders under him (Numbers 11:16-25).
The law of God had already been set in stone (literally); God was also the chief executive. Moses and the seventy elders adjudicated disputes under the direction of God’s Spirit, the ancient equivalent of a modern-day judicial branch. Together these factors combined to form an ideal system of government. Our generation, however, lacks a prophet like Moses; consequently, this system is an impractical goal today. After the chaotic period of the judges, God instructed the Prophet Samuel to anoint a king, inaugurating a monarchy (which after three generations became two competing monarchies) that lasted for several hundred years. As is historically the case under a monarchy, the king carried executive, legislative, and judicial powers.
Unfortunately, many kings of Israel led the nation into idolatry, reaping the consequences of their actions through military defeat and subservience to the surrounding nations. Eventually, Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the two monarchies, bringing the children of Israel into exile.
The Government of Messiah
Yeshua is the Messiah, the promised King who will restore the monarchy of Israel. Like the ancient kings, he will be leader, legislator, and judge. By framing the promised redemption in terms of a renewed monarchy, God placed his stamp of approval on this system—with one major caveat: It works only if the Messiah is perfect and blameless and completely obedient to the Torah, the law of God.
One could call this system a “theistic monarchy.” The people submit wholly to the king, and the king never makes a mistake. As the Son of God in whom the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form, Yeshua is immune from the corruption that power brings; he does not accumulate wealth or demand anything from the people that is not ultimately for their own good. His yoke is easy; his burden is light (Matthew 11:30). He heals the sick and uplifts the poor. He brings world peace. His words are the words of God, teaching and guiding the people and enforcing the perfect and righteous law.
The deepest desire of a disciple of Yeshua is to see Yeshua’s kingdom come. This desire transcends contemporary politics. We are not called to be Democrats or Republicans or socialists or communists; part of our identity as followers of Yeshua is that we are theistic monarchists. We need not worry about aligning ourselves totally with any political movement or party; our allegiance is to King Yeshua. We will not enjoy life under a theistic monarchy, however, until Yeshua returns. If we tried to implement this type of government without him and anointed someone else as a theistic monarch today, that person would be a false messiah, and we would be heretics.
Living in Exile
Since we cannot create a strictly biblical system of government until Yeshua’s return, we must look to the Apostle Paul for insight into how we should function among the nations’ political systems in which we sojourn. In Romans 13, Paul warns his readers that they are subject to earthly governments and that God has raised these governments to power to protect the innocent and judge those who do what is evil. We are to live in harmony with these governments, following the law of the land. Within that context, we are to live according to the law of Yeshua, loving each other and maintaining the standard of righteousness to which we are called.
This strategy mirrors that of the Jewish people in exile for the past two millennia. We live at peace with and in subjection to the kings, queens, governors, and presidents of the nations. Yet within our own communities, we strive to live up to the high standards of the Torah. Our spiritual leaders enforce Jewish law within our communities and within the boundaries of what is permitted by the governmental authorities.
Similarly, a disciple of Yeshua’s primary political responsibility is to live in obedience to Yeshua’s commands—yet we also have a responsibility to live at peace with the nations. Those of us who enjoy representative government can have some input into how these governments are run. Still, once the votes are tallied, we peacefully obey, waiting for the day when our perfect King inaugurates the final kingdom. When we do undertake political activity, we must remember to “be at peace with all people” (Romans 12:18 NASB), remaining civil, helpful, and thoughtful in our discourse, representing our Master well.
For some of us, this might mean channeling our political belief back into religious belief, taking a step back from the Twitter trenches, and reconnecting with the path of discipleship—working on ourselves and our communities of faith so that when Yeshua returns, we will be ready.