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A Response to Tony Campolo on Fighting the Powers

While I have nothing but admiration for Tony Campolo, I differ with his views on how Christians are to be change agents in the world. He has always been a strong proponent of Christians bringing about change by political means. I, on the other hand, am not in principle opposed to Christians engaging in politics, so long as they’re very careful about it. Yet, while they may engage in political activity as citizens, there’s nothing uniquely kingdom about this. So, in my opinion, this is not where our focus should lie.

The church is the body of Christ, and its job is to be a corporate version of what Jesus was when he was present on earth in his “first” body. We are the church, therefore, insofar as we individually and corporately love, serve, and sacrifice for others. This is what the reign of God looks like. What deeply concerns me is that, by this criterion, the church in America hardly exists. So rather than trying to get Christians to rally around this or that political cause, which neither Jesus nor anyone else in the New Testament ever encouraged us to do, it seems to me we should be singularly focused on becoming the church, which is the one thing Jesus calls us to be.

In any event, in this post I’d like to offer a second response to a comment made by Tony Campolo in an excerpt from The Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Meant What He Said?. It concerns Tony’s view that Christians are to engage the principalities and powers through political activism.

Tony believes that “Christians should challenge government to do the will of God” and that “we have the right to resist governments when they don’t do what is good for their people.” The reason is because Tony believes “all the principalities and powers were created by God and for God’s purposes in the world” (Colossians 1:16–17). He therefore believes “[i]t is the task of government, which is one of those principalities and powers, to do the will of God every bit as much as it is the task of the institutional church to do the will of God.” There are three things I’d like to say in response to this.

First, Tony is mistaken when he identifies government as “one of those principalities and powers.” As I’ve argued in several books and articles, within the first century apocalyptic worldview, the terms  “principalities and powers,” as well as similar terms such as “rulers,” “authorities,” “powers” and “spiritual forces” (e.g. 1 Cor. 2:7-8; Eph. 6:12), referred to different categories of cosmic agents or archangels who were understood to rule over systemic aspects of society and over all aspects of creation.*  While these terms were occasionally applied to godly agents, they usually referred to fallen and rebellious cosmic agents, which is how they are generally viewed in the New Testament. Hence, while these agents negatively influence government, they cannot be identified with government, as Tony suggests.

Second, while God uses governments to preserve law and order in our fallen world (Rom. 13: 1-7), and while God holds governments accountable for their injustices, I don’t think I can fully agree with Tony when he claims that, “[i]t is the task of government…to do the will of God every bit as much as it is the task of the institutional church to do the will of God.”  This makes it sound like the Church and government are on equal footing when it comes to carrying out God’s will. But as I read Scripture, the very fact that we have systems where some humans exercise power over others is already against God’s will.

Humans were originally created to have “dominion” over the animals and the earth, not each other (Gen. 1:26-28). God alone was supposed to rule us. This is why Israel, who were set apart as God’s chosen people, originally had no king. When they eventually stopped trusting God, they insisted on acquiring a human king to help protect them. Yahweh finally acquiesced, and he told Samuel, “they have rejected me as their king” (1 Sam. 8:7). The passage is suggesting that to have a human king is to reject God as king. It’s why Jesus said that, while pagans struggle to gain power to rule others, there is no place for this in the kingdom, where God’s original design for humans is restored. In the kingdom, which always looks like Jesus, greatness is defined by service, not power (Lk 22:25-27).

Not only this, but as I suggested in the previous post, the New Testament depicts all the governments of the world as being under Satan’s oppressive rule. Satan told Jesus that he owns all the splendor and authority of all worldly kingdoms and can “give it to anyone he wants” (Lk 4:5-7), and Jesus never disputed this. Because it was not original will for humans to rule each other, however, Jesus had no interest in gaining that kind of power, even though he could have massively improved the world by grabbing hold of it. Jesus rather chose to win the world using the only kind of power that is consistent with the reign of God, which is the power of self-sacrificial love.  This is the kind of power the church is to rely on to transform the world, which is yet another reason why it is misguided for Christians to focus on gaining political power.

The extent to which governments are at odds with the will of God and under Satans power is also reflected in the fact that Jesus three times refers to Satan as the ruler (arche) of the world (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16;11). The Greek word arche was used in political contexts to refer to the highest authority in any region. So too, Paul calls Satan “the god of this age” and “the principality and power of the air” (2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:2). John goes so far as to say that “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (I Jn 5:19): “the entire world” obviously includes all governments.

In this light, we shouldn’t be surprised when John depicts Satan as “the destroyer” who “deceives the nations” in the book of Revelation (Rev. 9:11; 20:3, 8 cf. 13:14). In keeping with this, all the governments of the world are depicted as part of one kingdom that belongs to Satan (Rev. 11:15), and it is this one kingdom that John symbolizes as “Babylon,” whose servants are the “rulers “of “all nations” who are “deceived” by her “sorcery” (viz. the deceptive lure of power) (Rev. 18:23, cf. 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21).

This is about as pessimistic a portrait of government as one could imagine! If we believed this, I submit it would never occur to us to be surprised when our politicians turn out to be corrupt, and we’d never be inclined to place any hope in any particular political candidate, program, or system. I would rather think we should be surprised when some turn out to be godly!  This intensely pessimistic outlook explains why it is that there is no indication in the New Testament that Jesus or any early disciple expected government to “do the will of God,” let alone do it “every bit as much as…the institutional church,” as Tony suggests. It also explains why there is no precedent in the life of Jesus or anyone in the early church for a follower of Jesus to imagine that it’s their job as ambassadors of the kingdom (2 Cor. 5:20) to try to get government to do the will of God.

As I mentioned at the start, this isn’t to suggest it’s wrong for Christians to get government to be as just as possible. But in light of the picture given us in the New Testament, it certainly means we shouldn’t expect government to do God’s will, let alone that it is our job to get government to do this – especially since we aren’t doing much of what God calls us to do, namely, to be the body of Christ!

Finally, far from trying to get the principalities and powers to clean up their act, Paul tells us that our job is to battle them. But because the principalities and powers are spiritual entities, not government, we don’t battle these forces by trying to change government. Indeed, Paul tells us that our struggle is never against “flesh and blood” – whether this “flesh and blood” are politicians or otherwise (Eph. 6:12).  We rather fight against the powers by fighting for all humans, including those who consider themselves our enemies. And one of the ways we resist the powers is by refusing to make other humans our enemies. As I’ve argued in Myth of a Christian Religion, we engage in spiritual warfare by imitating every aspect of Jesus’ life and obeying his teachings, including his command to love, bless and sacrifice for our would-be enemies, even when they threaten our lives (Mt. 5:39-45; Lk 6:27-35).

When we forget that our battle is against forces of evil, not humans, and when we forget that we are called to struggle against them by the loving way we live every day of our lives, we end up fighting other humans as though they were the enemy. Our distinct calling as followers of Jesus is to individually and collectively be faithful servants of Christ by living as he lived. If we do this, we will battle the powers and put on display the beauty of our king and his kingdom. If we do this, we will be social activists who change the world. But we will change it not be using Caesar’s power over others, but by using Christ’s love to serve and heal.


*I discuss these concepts in God at War (IVP, 1996); “The Kingdom as a Political-Spiritual Revolution,” Criswell Theological Review, 6.1. (Fall, 2008), and most fully in The Myth of a Christian Religion (Zondervan, 2009).

Image by carulmare. Sourced via Flickr.

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