How Do Kingdom Politics Work?
By the third century AD, in spite of a government that stood against religious freedom (except for the freedom to worship Caesar), the social fabric of Rome had been transformed for the better. Believers in Christ were the chief contributors to this transformation. Here are a few examples:
First, Christians led the way in the movement for women’s equality. At that time there were double standards in Rome with respect to gender. By law, women could only have one husband. Men could have multiple mistresses and wives. Unmarried and childless women were ostracized. If a woman’s husband died, she had two years to find a new husband, then the state would withdraw support and she would starve. Christians took up the cause of women, giving them prominent places of honor in the church (including the Virgin Mary, the deacon Phoebe, Junia who was esteemed by the apostles, Anna the prophetess, Lydia, the prominent businesswoman who hosted a local church in her home, and more), taking care of widows as if they were family, and calling men to cherish and be faithful to their wives. In spite of what Roman culture said, each Christian man would either be single or a “one-woman man,” the husband of one wife. The conservative virtue of monogamous sexuality within marriage was at play.
But so was the progressive virtue of equality—men could no longer treat women as inferior.
After insisting that in Christ, “there is no…male or female” (Galatians 3:28), Paul goes on to say that all believers, women and girls included, were to be considered “sons” of God in Christ (see Galatians 4:1-7). This identity statement was the furthest thing from sexist, patriarchal, or male-driven. In the same way that Scripture includes males as members of “the Bride of Christ” (the church), it also includes females as being among the sons of God. The former points to the tender, self-donating love of Christ the Bridegroom for all believers, both male and female. The latter points to the fact that unlike the Greco-Roman world, where all inheritance money and property went only to sons, in Christ the inheritance belongs to every “she” in Christ just as much as the inheritance belongs to any “he” in Christ.
Second, infanticide was prominent in early Rome. There was no prevailing ethic of life except that certain life was expendable. Consider this excerpt from a letter by a man named Hilarion to his wife Alis, who was expecting a child. Hilarion was away on business and sent these instructions about the child in Alis’ womb:
Do not worry if when all others return I remain in Alexandria. I beg and beseech of you to take care of the little child, and, as soon as we receive wages, I will send them off to you. If—good luck to you!—you have a child, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, throw it out. You told Aphrodisias to tell me: “Do not forget me.” How can I forget you? I beg you therefore not to worry.
It is stunning how upbeat he is toward his wife on the one hand, and how heartless he is toward the child on the other . . . if it is a girl, that is. If it is a girl, throw it out. Sadly, this was all too common in Rome. Christians, however, became known for taking up the cause of orphans (girls, children of other races or with special needs—it didn’t matter), welcoming them into their families and raising them to adulthood. Here we have the conservative virtue of protecting the unborn, plus the progressive virtues of championing female equality and social justice.
Third, as in Hitler’s Germany, the poor in Rome were coldly viewed as “useless eaters,” a drain on society. The Russian dictator, Joseph Stalin thought similarly of society’s poor and marginalized, referring to them as the “insignificant, plentiful others.” But in Christian communities the poor and marginalized were treated with dignity and honor. There was a spirit of compassion and generosity—the sharing of wealth to narrow the income gap . . . a progressive value. But generosity was voluntary, not forced . . . a conservative value. I once heard someone say that though conservative with their bodies, the early Christians were promiscuous with their wallets.
My friend Erik Lokkesmoe once said that it is the job of Christians to help certain parts of government become unnecessary. Of course he does not mean there should be no government at all, just need for government in those areas that Scripture entrusts to the church’s care. God gave us government to restrain evil and uphold the peace in society. He gave us the church, among other things, to champion the cause of the weak, heal the sick, feed the hungry, and show hospitality to people on the margins. With his statement, Erik was calling the church to a renewed vision of being a counter-cultural movement that works for the good of all.
The Kingdom of God advances on earth as it is in heaven when the people of God, loved and kept by Jesus, assume a public faith that includes, but is certainly not limited to, government. Public faith enriches the world not by grasping for earthly power, but through self-donation. This is how Jesus transformed Jerusalem. This is how Christianity transformed Rome. This is how Christianity can transform any society, including our own.
“Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)
This is a modified excerpt from Scott’s first book, Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who Are Tired of Taking Sides. Used by permission from Tyndale House.
This article about kingdom politics originally appeared here.