At the heart of the Christian confession lie a number of claims about the person of Christ, among which is the assertion that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Acts 2:36; Rom. 10:9-10). N. T. Wright and others in NT scholarship and Christian theology have emphasized that, ‘if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not,’ and that the book of Revelation, for example, is designed partially to subvert the hubris of the Roman Empire.
In the wake of the election here in the US, it’s interesting to ponder whether, or in what sense, the declaration of Christ’s lordship is indeed a political statement. I’ll share my own (non-partisan) thoughts and would be glad to hear some others’.
Broadly speaking, it clearly can be called a political statement: the triune God reigns over all creation and is executing his purpose of the summing up of all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10), according to which all the pomp and machinations of human rulers are relativized. This undoubtedly affords a precious solace and encouragement in the midst of the difficulties of this life, political or otherwise.
However, despite vague sentiments to the contrary, it is very difficult to tie the notion of Jesus as political activist to any passage in the Gospels. Yes, he boldly addressed the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders and called upon them to repent of their mistreatment of the sheep of Israel, but the Pharisees, Sadducees, et al. are hardly analogous to modern day senators, mayors, presidents, or prime ministers. Yes, he called Herod a ‘fox’ (Luke 13:32), but in the context the point is only that Jesus refuses to abide by Herod’s directives on where or how to go about his ministry. Yes, Jesus came to fulfill the liberating promise of the Isaianic prophecy and proclaim good news to the poor and freedom for the captives (Luke 4:17-19), but he undertook no specific measures to modify the civil government of the day and he never instructed his disciples to do so, even when given the ideal opportunity (Acts 1:6-8). There is a conspicuous absence in the Bible of dominical or apostolic instruction for the church as an institution to labor for the transformation or redemption of the civic realm as such, and believers must await the true transformation of the kingdoms of this world at the coming of Christ (Rev. 11:15). Does this mean that there is no place for Christians (and others) to advocate governmental or social reform? No at all, for believers, under God’s providence and in their various callings in this age, still can and should be involved in the public realm for the common good, but this is less a matter of naively seeking to transform contemporary society into the kingdom of God than of simply loving one’s neighbor in this life, which is no mean endeavor.
There is also the question of how it would actually look to bring the lordship of Christ to bear in public policy. Naturally one thinks of the urgency of securing justice in society, not least for the vulnerable and oppressed, but the exigency of justice is already made known to humanity by way of general revelation and natural law. In addition, the importance of justice, impressed upon us by nature and reiterated in Christ’s teaching, does not deliver any concrete political agenda. Beyond the fundamental dicta of natural law, from which one can make pronouncements about murder, theft, equal treatment, and so on, much is simply left to close research and judicious planning in the areas of education, economics, etc.
All of this is to say that ‘Jesus is Lord’ can be called a political statement only in a very general sense. It does provide great reassurance in the travails of life. Yet, because it must be qualified with the acknowledgement (1) that the church is not meant to redeem government or society as such, (2) that the moral judgments that government must uphold are not peculiar to Jesus’ teaching (unless one wishes to go beyond the basics, as it were, and Christianize the society from the top down with legal requirements to take the Lord’s Supper, for example, and do other properly Christian things), and (3) that ‘Jesus is Lord’ contains no fleshed-out political agenda. This might not be as exhilarating as trying to deduce from ‘Jesus is Lord’ that we ought to supplant current civil government and usher in the kingdom of God ourselves or that we ought to take the world by storm with a certain political tack, but it seems to me that it does have the advantages of not claiming too much from this statement, of not hyper-extending the Great Commission, and of corroborating that Christians serving in politics can’t operate on the basis of Christian axioms alone and must be diligent in studying history, weighing potential outcomes for policies, etc., just as a firefighter cannot learn to rescue a family from a burning house simply by knowing the Bible well.