Sub-Christian Nationalism? (Part 12)

In article XIII: On the Great Commission, the Statement says,

Article XIII: The Great Commission
WE AFFIRM that Christ’s commissioning of His Church to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that He has commanded includes civil authorities who are to be called to repentance, faith, and obedience to Christ. We affirm that the Church is to instruct civil authorities regarding their identity and duties as servants before the throne of Christ. We affirm that this duty is a Great Commission issue.

WE DENY that there is any sphere of life in which the command “teach them to obey all that I have commanded” does not apply, including politics and government.

Scripture: Matthew 28:16–20; Luke 18:1–8; Philippians 2:9–11; 1 Corinthians 10:31.

It is a fact that the apostolic and early Christian church did not speak explicitly to the many social problems that plagued the ancient, pagan world (e.g., human trafficking, abortion) as they existed in the world outside the visible church. The Apostles called Christians to live quietly, to pray for the emperor (1 Tim 2:2) and to honor the emperor (1 Pet 2:17). They did not instruct Christians to run for office or to leave public office if they held it (e.g., Erastus, Rom 16:23). Paul’s instruction to the Corinthian Christians was plain:

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (1 Cor 7:17–24)

“Stay where you are” is also opposed to false asceticism and the monastic withdrawal from culture and society. Again, Paul instructed the Corinthians,

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor 5:9–11)

Paul’s approach to living among pagans was not to flee (false asceticism) but to remain among them. The people with whom we are not to associate are those who profess Christ but who demonstrate themselves, by their behavior, to be unbelievers.

So, in light of what we know from Scripture, interpreted in light of the progress of redemptive history and revelation, it is not as though we have to guess what was intended by our Lord in the Great Commission. What is that Commission? Our Lord said to his disciples,

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18–20)

All evangelical Christians (in the old-fashioned Reformation sense of the word—that is, those who are about the gospel of free salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone) agree that Christ has commissioned the visible, institutional church to make disciples of all the nations. What is in question is the implication of the Statement that the noun nations signifies political and civil organizations (e.g., cities, states, and nations). That implication is clear because of what follows their invocation of the Great Commission: “includes the civil authorities.” The Statement continues by asserting that “the Church is to instruct civil authorities” not in the basics of the Christian faith as converts, but rather “regarding their identity as servants before the throne of Christ. We affirm that this duty is a Great Commission issue.”

Certainly, the Apostles called civil authorities to faith and repentance, but what the Statement wants us to think is that they were called to do so as a part of their office. The framers seem rather clearly to be implying what is being claimed by proponents of Christian Nationalism—that the Great Commission is aimed at political entities and not people. Does this claim sustain investigation?

Matthew’s Gospel uses the words τὰ ἔθνη (ta ethnē). Understood against its canonical context in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and the New Testament usage, the Christian Nationalist claim cannot be sustained. τὰ ἔθνη could just as easily be translated as “the peoples.” It is used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew Goyim. The expression occurs 446 times in the LXX. Most of the time it refers to people groups rather than to political organizations (e.g., nations as governments). The first instance, Genesis 10:32, is instructive: “These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, according to their nations (κατὰ τὰ ἔθνη αὐτῶν), and from these the nations (τῶν ἐθνῶν) spread abroad on the earth after the flood.” Political entities did not establish global domination immediately after the flood, but people groups did spread.

When our Lord commissioned the visible church to make disciples of all the nations, he intended people groups. In the words of Revelation 5:9, the gospel is to go to “every tribe and language and people and nation.” We need not guess what was meant by τὰ ἔθνη since we have an inspired record and interpretation of those words.

In Acts 10:45, τὰ ἔθνη refers to “the Gentiles” and is translated accordingly in the ESV. It does not refer to political organizations or magistrates. The same is true in Acts 11:1, 13:46, 48; 14:6; 15:7, 17; 18:6; and 21:1. There is no place in Acts where τὰ ἔθνη refers to a political organization or government.

Consider the encounters by the Apostles with civil authorities in the Acts. As I suggested earlier, there is not a single instance recorded where the Apostles sought to disciple the civil magistrates or even to instruct them in the way the Statement asserts the Church must. The Apostles failed the test established by the Statement.

The Apostles were arrested by the High Priest (Acts 5:18), and freed by an angel (v. 19). They were found again by the chief priests and brought again before the High Priest (v. 27). The disciples asserted their obligation to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). What did Peter and the Apostles preach? Christ crucified, buried, raised, and ascended. They spoke not a syllable about the government. The apostles were beaten, and they rejoiced at the privilege of suffering with and for Jesus (vv. 41–42).

When Stephen was seized (Acts 7) he preached a redemptive-historical sermon before his martyrdom. Again, not a word to the government or about it. Herod murdered James and arrested Peter (Acts 12:1–3). We read nothing about a word to him regarding the government. The argument that John the Baptist’s rebuke of Herod’s sin (Mark 6:14) constitutes an attempt by a prophet to call a magistrate in the New Testament to institute Christianity fails on several points: 1) John the Baptist was an Old Testament prophet not a Christian Apostle; 2) He did not call Herod Antipas to institute Christianity but prosecuted him for his violation of Old Testament law. He was prosecuting him for sin, not “discipling the nations” as some Christian Nationalists have argued. In short, this is a tortured appeal to Scripture.

Paul did not even assert his Roman citizenship until after he had been beaten (Acts 16:23–24; 38–39). In Thessalonica (Acts 17), the Apostles were falsely accused of preaching a political message (Christian Nationalism): “They dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also,’ and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6–7). Luke’s intent in reporting the confusion is ironic since the Apostles were preaching the very opposite. Christ is Lord but he is not running for office against Caesar or his lackeys. When Paul was arrested and beaten in Jerusalem (Acts 21:27–22:11), he preached the gospel. After he spoke to the Tribune (Acts 22:21–29), again he preached the gospel. He said nothing to or about the government, about politics, about instituting Christianity as the state religion or their duties before Christ as civil magistrates. He knew that they knew their duties by nature (Rom 13:7). When he addressed Felix the Governor (Acts 24:1–21), he spoke of nothing but Christ and the bodily resurrection. Again, according to the Christian Nationalists, we see Paul failing to do his job. When he appealed to Caesar, he invoked his rights as a Roman citizen. Paul understood the difference between nature and grace. When he appeared before Agrippa (Acts 26) he again stuck strictly to spiritual matters.

This abuse of Scripture here by the Christian Nationalists points to a twofold subterranean problem with the movement: 1) it is utterly without warrant in the New Testament; 2) its amateur appeal to and use of Holy Scripture. This is a movement or an agenda, citing Scripture and hoping we will not notice how weak the biblical-theological or exegetical foundations are, but weak they are indeed.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

You can find this whole series here.


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