In a recent podcast which I titled “Make Christianity Weak Again,” I talked about the approaches which the church in the United States has used in interacting with the political realm. The place where I landed is that the church should look at the state with suspicion, view its relationship to it as an uneasy one, and not seek to consolidate political power but to emphasize its spiritual power.
In this podcast, I want to give the biblical theory behind my practical application. Why should the church not seek to align itself with the state?
The biblical answer, in short, is that the world is in the hands of demonic forces and God’s kingdom is a spiritual one–not a physical one. In other words, there is a fundamental incompatibility between church and state. It is God’s will that both exist in this age, and both serve a divine purpose, but they are two very different kinds of things. We are called to pray for the peace of the state where we find ourselves and for its leaders–particularly that they would be persuaded to leave us alone–but not to conquer it for Christ.
Deuteronomy 32 provides the most basic outline of the notion that the nations are under the control of demonic forces. Verses 8-9 inform us that, “when the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage” (ESV).
The term “sons of God,” in Old Testament usage, refers to angels. In other words, God has placed spiritual forces over nations. The passage goes on to speak about God’s sovereignty to judge Israel and the nations, even those nations whom God’s angels have authority over, so this notion is not a challenge to God’s sovereignty.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we have more explicit testimony that the angels placed over the nations are corrupted beings which mislead the people under their authority. For instance, in Psalm 82. Asaph describes the scene. It is one of judgment over these corrupted angels:
“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: ‘How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? . . . You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.’ Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations” (Ps. 82:1-8 ESV)!
The picture painted for us by scripture so far is of many nations with fallen angelic forces over them. This picture is confirmed in Daniel 10 where an angelic messenger claims to have been held back from reaching Daniel by a contrary angelic figure described as “the prince of the kingdom of Persia”:
“The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come” (Dan. 10:13-14 ESV)
These themes continue between the time of the Old Testament writings and the time of Jesus. Walter Wink, in the first volume of his book series Naming the Powers, gives a few examples.
“In 3 Enoch, where Sammael, or Satan, is described as the angel of Rome and the head of the seventy princes of the kingdoms of the world. Even here, however, Satan and the angels of the nations remain members in good standing in the heavenly court: “Every day Satan is sitting, together with Sammael, the Prince of Rome, and with Dubbiel, the Prince of Persia, and they write the iniquities of Israel on writing tablets which they hand over to the Seraphim, in order that they may present them before the Holy One, blessed be He, so that He may destroy Israel from the world,” that is, so that they might be permitted, as the rod of God’s judgment, to let their nations devour Israel. But the Seraphim, true to their name, burn (saraph) the accusations before they can reach God’s throne (3 Enoch 26:12)”
“Another thread from I Enoch 89-90 leads to the full identification of the seventy shepherds with the seventy angels of the seventy nations. This identification may have already been intended by I Enoch, since the idea of seventy nations was as old as Genesis 10. The Hebrew Testament of Naphtali 8, whose antiquity has now been confirmed by the discovery of fragments at Qumran, tells of the time when “the Lord … came down from His highest heavens, and brought down with Him seventy ministering angels, Michael at their head. He commanded them to teach the seventy families which sprang from the loins of Noah seventy languages.””
The New Testament confirms the notion of demonic control of the nations in the strongest possible terms. In Luke 4:5-7, Satan himself claims to have been given authority over nations and states with the additional detail that he, the devil, gives it to whomever he pleases. Jesus does not dispute his assertion. Indeed, he affirms it in John 12:31, 14:30, and 16:11 where He calls Satan “the ruler of this world.” John affirms this view as well in 1 John 5:19 with his claim that the *whole world* lies under the power of the evil one, as well as in Revelation 13:7 where he tells us that Satan has authority over every tribe, people, language, and nation.
Accepting that political power is under the authority of Satan, how are we encouraged to react to it? Are we to seek to conquer it for Christ, as Dominionists and Theonomists argue? Not according to Jesus, who in John 18:36 told Pilate:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
Paul also affirms our thesis in Ephesians 6:12 where he informs his Christian readers that, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12 ESV).
But what did Paul mean when he said we wrestled against rulers and authorities? This combination of words, rulers (arche) and authorities (exousia) are used together a handful of times in the NT:
Of political powers:
Of negative spiritual powers:
Eph 3:10– in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.
1 Cor 15:24– then comes the end, when He delivers up the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power.
Eph 1:21– He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come.
Eph 6:12– For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
Col 1:16– all things were created by Him.
Col 2:10– Christ is the head of all arche and exousia.
Col 2:15– When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.
When Paul writes that God, “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Col. 2:15 ESV), we must understand that he probably included both physical kingdoms and their spiritual authorities. However, he viewed our battle against political powers not as a military one but a spiritual one since governments are under the authority of demons.
Romans 12-13 elaborates on the idea of fighting spiritual, not physical battles. Though Paul argues that magistrates serve a God-ordained purpose in their use of physical punishment, Christians operate at a different frequency:
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:19-21 ESV).
It is worth noting that Paul is here quoting Deuteronomy 32:35, the passage I cited earlier which gives us the first glimpse at the angelic power over the nations. In context, God is speaking about punishing the nations for their wickedness. They may be under a different “god,” (so to speak) but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is supreme over all and will judge both angels and men.
Recall that in Deuteronomy 32, God described Israel as His “portion” in a way that the nations, under demonic authority, were not. Similarly, the church is not under the authority of demons, but of Christ alone. We may be encouraged by Paul to, “pray for rulers and for all who have authority so that we can have quiet and peaceful lives full of worship and respect for God,” but we are not encouraged to think of ourselves as a people living under two kingdoms. We are guests in a kingdom held by demons, and we should conduct ourselves as respectful guests, but we are also ambassadors of a different kingdom. It will not do to have us declaring allegiance to a kingdom which is opposed to the one we are claiming to represent, particularly when the kingdom of God will smash the kingdoms of men (Daniel 7), God will punish corrupted powers in the heavens as well as rulers on earth (Isaiah 24:21), and since even now Christ’s cross has disarmed the powers (Col 2:15).
What then should our attitude toward the state be? As the 2nd century bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch wrote in his epistle to the Romans:
“All the ends of the earth, all the kingdoms of the world would be of no profit to me; so far as I am concerned, to die in Jesus Christ is better than to be monarch of earth’s widest bounds. He who died for us is all that I seek; He who rose again for us is my whole desire.”