Politics: The Way of Jesus

by Tim Isbell, November 2019
(For an electronic copy of this article, type bit.ly/tdi_dominionism into the address bar of any browser.)

While politics and religion are taboo subjects for many, right now, they are pivotal.

I am a Christian minister registered as a “no party preference” voter who pays enough attention to politics to send a few modest checks to candidates. 

I have long questioned how Republicans, who claim to operate according to Christian principles, reconcile many of their political policies with Christian faith. For just as long, I have wondered why Democrats are so quiet about the Christian foundations of many of their policies.

My way to process such matters is to research, reflect, and write about them. Sometimes, I post them as articles on my website and elsewhere. One outcome is this article. I hope you can make time to read it. And if you think it might help someone you know, please share it with them.


A subset of conservative evangelical Christians believes God wants them to take control of society's political and cultural institutions. Such thinking is called dominionism, and it's proponents currently control the Republican party.

Dominionists believe that the United States once was, and should again become, a Christian nation. They deny the Enlightenment’s influence on the founding of American democracy. (In contrast, the secular-left controls much of the Democratic party and discounts the Christian influence on the founders.)

Dominionists have little or no respect for other religions and increasingly even discount other  Christian traditions. (In contrast, the secular-left typically rejects all organized religion.)

Dominionists believe that the Ten Commandments and biblical law should be the foundation of American law and that the Constitution is a vehicle for implementing biblical principles. (The secular-left considers itself non-religious, and guided by reason and observation.)

Religious right-wings are not new. In the gospels, Jesus grappled with a first-century religious right-wing. They were called zealots, and they had long-believed that God would send a Messiah to lead them in retaking their sovereignty from Rome by force. Then the Messiah would lead them in re-establishing a Jewish theocratic nation. Some had even higher ambitions.

Simon-the-zealot was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Zealots repeatedly pressed Jesus to use his miraculous powers to overturn Rome’s control. Jesus knew that he was the Messiah, and he heard their calls. Yet, instead of powering up, Jesus went to the cross and invited all people to follow him. To follow the Jesus of the New Testament means to sacrifice (at least some of) our privilege, care for the needy, and to suffer. Such is The Way of Jesus.

So how does the Christian right-wing theologically justify dominionism? All Christians believe that someday Jesus will return a second time, and then it will be evident to all that he is - and always was - the Lord of the entire Creation. Dominionists seem to think that Jesus is waiting for them to set the world in order before he returns. Maybe it is possible to string together scriptures that point in this direction, but only if you give equal weight to all passages in the Bible and then try fit Jesus into them. On the other hand, if you start with Jesus, and look at the rest of the Bible through a Jesus lens, I don’t see how to get to dominionism.

Rachel Held Evans offers a helpful perspective in her book: A Year of Biblical Womanhood. It chronicles her year-long experiment of enacting the biblical commandments as literally as possible. She points out that if we read the whole Bible as equal in truth, coherence, and authority, we end up having to accept that:

  • A father can sell his daughter (Exodus 21:7).
  • Society can force her to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28–29).
  • She must keep silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34–35).
  • She must cover her head (1 Corinthians 11:6).
  • She must accept life among multiple wives (Exodus 21:10).

Evans' perspective challenges a cornerstone dogma of Christian traditions that claim that the entire Bible can be equally trusted. Her book offers a different cornerstone, that “Jesus can be trusted, and the Bible can be loved.”

Such thinking doesn’t come only from liberal Christian feminists. For instance, consider Andy Stanley, a highly respected Southern Baptist minister in Atlanta: “Read the Old Testament for inspiration and motivation, but not for application. Take your application cues from Jesus.”

Or read The Christ of the Indian Road written by E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist missionary to India in the early 20th-century. Or, read Let's Start with Jesus by Dennis Kinlaw, another Methodist theologian in the late 20th century. Or read the Nazarene theologian C.S. Cowles’ four chapters in Show Them No Mercy, 4 views on God and the Canaanite Genocide. Or read my meditation on Ps 139, Let’s Start with Jesus.

Leslie Newbigin, a 20th-century Presbyterian missionary to India, in The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, taught that the Christian Gospel sometimes becomes a tool of imperialism. When this happens, we must repent because Christian faith is the denial of all imperialisms. At its center is the cross that humbles all imperialisms. Newbigin writes that God invites us to locate our center in the One who became nothing so that all might be one. The very heart of the biblical vision for the unity of humankind is that its center is not an imperial power but is Jesus, the slain Lamb of God.

Martin Luther, as paraphrased by John Ortberg in Love Beyond Reason, wrote, “Left to our own devices, we would always think of God in terms of power and dominance and control. We would make him after our image - we would think of him as we would want to be if we were God. But this is not the God who reveals himself in Jesus."

From where I sit, it looks like those who claim Christian faith and promote dominionist theology have lost their way. Instead of following Jesus, they are running ahead of him, trying to bring justice and holiness through the Law. Jesus' teaching and life stood solidly against such a strategy.

Dominionism is not only bad theology, it is also bad politics in that it opposes the initial phrase in the First Amendment of the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

So, let’s start with Jesus and look at the rest of the Bible through his lens.

Full disclosure: my religious background was (and remains) in a rather conservative part of the Christian tradition. My people generally watch the political show from the sidelines while focusing on personal spiritual formation, community formation, and ministries of compassion. One reason I'm writing this article is to encourage my religious peers to take a theological look into this political issue enough to impact their vote.

I believe that God’s assignment for us is to live as citizens of Jesus’ final kingdom while residing at postal addresses squarely in this multicultural world. Every day, God wants us to serve as salt and light in our surroundings, even/especially when it includes suffering. As opportunities arise, we share the Good News of a welcoming Savior who invites everyone who will follow him to do so. Jesus never coerced people, true Christian faith is always opt-in. In those seasons of history, when Christians gained political power, we invariably slid into the human strategy of coercion. I understand this; coercion makes so much more sense to us humans than suffering. But coercion is a human response - which is the opposite of authentic Christian faith.

A Christian couple with minor children in the home needs to manage the family as a Christian theocracy - that’s a matter of stewardship of the gift of children that God gives us. Leaders of a Christian church need to do the same among the committed congregants. But Jesus does not want us to establish a Christian theocratic form of government for America - and neither did America’s founders.

We find insight and inspiration throughout the Bible, but that doesn't translate to equal weight for every verse. Instead, authentic Christians follow The Way of Jesus, just as was right for the Christians in the first three centuries after Jesus. After all, there was no Bible when Constantine declared Rome to be a Christian nation in 313 AD. It was Constantine who, in the process of setting up the dominionist Roman state, commissioned the compilation of the first fifty Bibles in 331 AD. 



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