The nations

From 2015 to 2018 I preached a series of messages on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. This messaged was preached in 2018. Article 23: Church’s Relation To Government And Society.

The nation of Israel and Judah were judged by God as being worse than the nations around them and so God had used the nations of Assyria and later Babylon to destroy Israel. Just because Babylon had been used by God, didn’t make Babylon a good nation. King Nebuchadnezzar built a large golden statue and forced everyone to worship it. When Israel was exiled, even good and faithful Jews had been exiled. Shadrach, Meshac and Abegnego refused to obey the command to bow down to the statue and were sentenced to death. God saved them miraculously. This event not only proved their faith in God to be true, it also changed king Nebuchadnezzar.

Today I will be talking about article 23 of our confession of faith titled “Church’s Relation to Government and Society”. Scripture doesn’t use the term “government” too often. The NIV uses it 4 times and only in the Old Testament and the NRSV doesn’t use it at all. The term “nations”, on the other hand, is used very frequently.

I’m not entirely sure if the way we use the term nations today has the same meaning as the writers of scripture, but it’s likely close enough. What the scripture writers probably didn’t know was how big nations would get in the future. The sheer size of nations today, both in land area and population is often much more than what people had experienced before. Also, the forms of government are much different. So while the idea of nations might be similar, our experience of nations is different today than the scripture writers.

Genesis 10 is where we first read about the nations. In Genesis 11, we have the story of the tower of Babel where different languages are created and language becomes the main division among nations. In Genesis 12 God calls Abraham with a two fold promise: Abraham will be blessed and become great and his descendants will become a great nation and the second part is that all nations will be blessed through him.

The Old Testament is mostly critical of other nations and there are 2 main disagreements God has with the nations: (1) The nations don’t believe in God’s authority and have chosen to worship idols and (2) as a result of the nations’ idolatry, they become proud, behave unjustly and do evil. The purpose of God’s promises to Abraham is not to hurt the nations, but to turn them back to him, using Abraham’s descendants as an example of righteousness and justice. This is most notably demonstrated in the nation of Israel under the rule of king David. Yet even king David’s rule is ruined by pride and evil and Israel fails to represent God’s righteousness.

A theme we see often in scripture, with regards to the nations, is that if they become strong then they become proud. Pride becomes idolatry. This leads to violence against neighbors and injustices against the poor and powerless within the nation. Typically a messenger from God is sent to tell the nation that they need to change. The nation refuses to listen. Finally God makes an end to that nation. For some nations, we see all these steps. For others, we only read about their end.

In the Old Testament, the nations in Canaan are a good example. God notices how they are becoming increasingly corrupt. In Genesis 15, God tells Abraham that the Amorites’ sin has not yet reached it’s full measure which indicates that they have time to repent, but the forecast for that doesn’t look good. Another example are the Assyrians in the book of Jonah. Jonah is the messenger called to proclaim Nineveh’s destruction, but God wants them to repent. What is interesting is that the Assyrians repent and their destruction is delayed at least another generation.

The nation of Egypt is a well described example. Egypt was a relatively decent nation since they allowed the Israelites to settle near them, but in Exodus chapter 1 it becomes clear that they have become strong, proud and evil. They start by instituting a policy of oppressive slavery, enslaving their Israelite neighbors. The king also considered it a good policy to kill baby boys. While it’s the king that institutes all these practices, it’s the people that carry it out, except for the 2 midwives who rebel against the kings command and it says that God blesses them for rebelling against the Pharoah.

God gives many chances for the king of Egypt to repent, but in the end, even while the Pharaoh’s own officials would rather give in to God, the king refuses and God brings judgment on him. Yet we also notice that God does not destroy the nation of Egypt.

Another nation included in this is Israel. Israel is a nation that has God as it’s only God and recognizes God as their ultimate authority, but Israel repeats the same pattern as other nations. While Israel, or Judah, never officially abandoned worshiping God, they included idol worship along with worship of God. God eventually judges that Israel has become more corrupt than the nations that God had removed earlier and that Israel would suffer a similar fate to these nations. God exiled his people to Assyria and Babylon, destroying their nation. Israel was supposed to be a nation that represented God to the nations of the world. Who would now become God’s messengers to the nations?

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

2nd Corinthians 5:20 NIV

Can any nation be truly Godly? Our confession says the following, From the 1st paragraph of article 23:

Confession: We believe that the church is God’s “holy nation,” called to give full allegiance to Christ its head and to witness to all nations about God’s saving love.

The multi-national church

Mennonite World Conference, pictured here, demonstrates in a small way how the church as a whole is multi-national. The church is meant for all nations and we come closer to the vision in Revelation the more nations the church lives in.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.

Revelation 7:9 NIV

Historically, in scripture, we read about how each nation had their own set of gods. Egypt had it’s gods, Canaan had it’s gods, the Philistines had their gods. When you moved to a new land, you had to learn the gods of that land. The gods were very much regional. Not only that, but gods tended to have specialties.

That there would be one God that ruled everywhere and over everything was what distinguished Israel. That this God commanded no image be made of him was also different. God’s multi-national reach and all encompassing power was demonstrated when God freed Israel from slavery in Egypt, a foreign nation. The plagues themselves were designed to humiliate the gods of Egypt. Again, when Israel is sent into exile in Babylon, God demonstrates that his power spans the nations because God brings his people back to Jerusalem again.

Before Jesus returned to heaven, he commanded the church to go into all nations. The church represents God’s multi-national power.

Confession: The church is the spiritual, social, and political body that gives its allegiance to God alone. As citizens of God’s kingdom, we trust in the power of God’s love for our defense. The church knows no geographical boundaries and needs no violence for its protection. The only Christian nation is the church of Jesus Christ, made up of people from every tribe and nation, called to witness to God’s glory.

There have been a number of nations or empires in the past that have claimed to defend Christianity using military force. The Roman Empire, France, England and other Western European countries are some that I can recall that have made this claim. The truth is that no nation can contain the church and no nation has the ability to defend the multi-national church. Most important to remember is that it is God who defends the church, not the nations. In fact, it isn’t the church that needs the nations for defense. It is the nations that need the church for protection.

The nation’s authority

Pharaoh had instituted the policy that all Hebrew baby boys should be thrown into the Nile river. Moses’ mom obeyed the letter of the law, but not the heart of the law. God blessed her protest by saving Moses.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Romans 13:1-7 NIV

The Apostle Paul, who wrote this passage, was later executed by the Roman Empire. Many of Jesus’ closest followers including the Apostles Peter and James were executed by the government. Was Rome justified in killing the apostles? Was Rome being a servant of God?

Jeff Sessions, the attorney general of the United States, in 2018 used Romans 13 to justify certain US immigration policies. Just because a nation makes a law doesn’t make the law good. The Pharaoh justified his policy of throwing baby boys into the Nile river as a way to protect Egypt’s sovereignty. Romans 13 was never intended for use by politicians or government officials. It’s for the church.

Rome faced a number of violent rebellions in it’s history and Paul is likely speaking against actions that lead to violent rebellion. Christians in Paul’s day might have been upset for a number of reasons, like excessive taxes and possibly some other rules that were humiliating or discriminatory, but Paul is saying that nations exist to establish order in the chaos and creating a rebellion is making chaos out of order which is bad news. Paul is saying, don’t work against God, let God work for you using the nations.

There are many laws that Christians today have a hard time obeying like speed limits and respecting copyright laws. Then there are laws that the church has not agreed with, like laws permitting abortions. Mennonites have been against military drafts and to a lesser extent taxes that go to war. The simple rule is this, follow the laws of the nation and when the law conflicts with God’s righteousness, then be prepared to suffer for not following it, because that’s what happened to Paul, Peter and James and the many faithful martyrs throughout history.

The next paragraph in our confession refers to Romans 13:

Confession: In contrast to the church, governing authorities of the world have been instituted by God for maintaining order in societies. Such governments and other human institutions as servants of God are called to act justly and provide order. But like all such institutions, nations tend to demand total allegiance. They then become idolatrous and rebellious against the will of God. Even at its best, a government cannot act completely according to the justice of God because no nation, except the church, confesses Christ’s rule as its foundation.

Church is political

In Acts 19, Paul is in Ephesus where a silversmith named Demetrius is upset that Paul’s message of Jesus is causing people to abandon idol worship including Artemis, which will ruin his idol making business. He gathers like minded businessmen and they start a riot. They capture two of Paul’s friends and are about to hurt them, but the riot ends when city officials calm the rioters down. The gospel message can unintentionally affect the economy and while that might be good in the long run, it will often have immediate negative political effects. The goal of the church though is to bless, not cause riots.

Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Jeremiah 29:7 NIV

Mennonites historically have avoided anything political with good reason. In the 1500’s in Europe, the church and government were tightly knit together where religious leaders were government officials and government officials were all endorsed by religious leaders. Mennonites and other Anabaptists were persecuted by the government because the church and state were so closely connected. It has always ended up being bad news when the church and the government become one in the world. Mennonites in the US historically avoided anything political: they didn’t vote and they didn’t take government offices.

Things change. Mennonites have come to realize that it is impossible to avoid politics. The authors of scripture lived at a time when there were no democracies. Now there are democracies everywhere. What does the Bible say about voting or political parties? Nothing really, because they didn’t live in a democracy.

What about running for political office? People like Joseph who served in Egypt’s government and Daniel who served in the Babylonian government, both had very powerful political positions, but they were put into their positions, not elected. What does it mean for someone with Anabaptist heritage to run for politics? Well, that might be a question for Lloyd Smucker who grew up in an Amish family, attended Lancaster Mennonite and began his political career in 2008. Or perhaps Jess King, who went to school with Millie at Lancaster Mennonite and ran for congress in 2018 (vs. Llyod Smucker). How do faith and politics meet without becoming religious persecution or a compromised faith practice?

The goal of a politician is to get as many people together as possible to move society forward. How do you do that as a Christian in a country with so many different religions? Is it right to force people to behave the way you believe is right? Would an Anabaptist politician vote to go to war, for example? At the heart of politics is compromise and compromise is not a bad thing in general. At the same time, compromise is where it becomes difficult to be a Christian and a politician.

Confession: As Christians we are to respect those in authority and to pray for all people, including those in government, that they also may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. We may participate in government or other institutions of society only in ways that do not violate the love and holiness taught by Christ and do not compromise our loyalty to Christ. We witness to the nations by being that “city on a hill” which demonstrates the way of Christ. We also witness by being ambassadors for Christ, calling the nations (and all persons and institutions) to move toward justice, peace, and compassion for all people. In so doing, we seek the welfare of the city to which God has sent us.

When it comes to running for political office, there is a greater chance that you will compromise your faith values the higher up in government your office is. Jesus himself never pursued worldly politics to do his work. It’s good that there are Christian politicians, but if a Christian thinks they can help the church by being in politics, they are believing something that is wrong.

The package deal

Politics in the US is a lot like a cable tv package. You might like a handful of channels in the package and you ignore everything else. Yet there are programs within the channels of the package that you will likely consider pretty bad, either poorly made or promoting ideas you don’t like. When you purchase that package, you not only support what you like, you also end up supporting channels you disagree with, but what can you do?

Politics in the US is a 2 package deal. Which color do you like? Blue or Red? Pro business? Or pro government? It’s like asking if you like Pepsi or Coke. There is a slight difference in taste, but I wouldn’t wager that I could tell the difference in a blind taste test.

When I moved to the US, I came after a very divided election in 2001. Political advertisements were manipulative and divisive. The message was subtle, but after many years of thinking about it, I came to understand what I was hearing: If you’re God fearing Bible reading Christian, love unborn children, hate taxes, tough on immigrants and pro military then you’ll vote Republican. If you like science, if you’re thoughtful, believe that the government can do a good job, have an enlightened sense of morality, and don’t trust industry to protect the environment or your health then you’ll vote Democrat.

This left little room for those that might be scientific God fearing Bible believing types who love unborn babies but want to be a good neighbor to the poor and still like immigrants and think the government can do a good job. Voting for both parties is the same as voting for no party. You can’t vote for the ½ of the party that you like. It’s a package deal.

Among Jesus’ closest disciples were a at least 2 opposite political opinions, if not more. Matthew, a tax collector, was someone that would be called a Roman collaborator and likely hated by the most nationalistic Jews called Zealots which Simon was. Both Matthew and Simon are among Jesus’ 12 apostles. It’s like having a Tea Party activist hang out with a life long Democrat.

There is room within the church for different political opinions as long as Jesus is Lord. We are brothers and sisters in Christ and we must love each other more than political party preferences.

When voting in elections we need to know in what ways our voting falls short of righteousness. When your vote increases the chances for war, then let your work in the church promote peace. When your vote increases the burden on the poor, let your work in the church promote charity. When your vote increases persecution, let your work in the church be to suffer persecution with the persecuted.

Living in the nations until the end of time

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Revelation 22:1-2 NIV

In the NRSV, Genesis chapter 10 is the first place where the word “nations” appears. The very last place, is the very last chapter of Revelation. The nations play a big part in Revelation. The nations are almost always in rebellion against Jesus. In Revelation 13 it says that every nation is subject to the beast.

What is interesting is that when Jesus is victorious, the nations are not wiped away from existence, because they show up in Revelation 21 and 22, at the end of time. In fact, the leaves of the tree of life are for healing the nations.

There are two realities that become evident before the New Heaven and New Earth: The nations will always, at some level, be in rebellion against Jesus. The purpose of the church is to be in all nations to bless them and demonstrate what righteousness is. And while the church lives in all nations and we bless our neighbors where we live, our loyalty remains exclusively with Jesus and to the church across all nations.

Confession: We understand that Christ, by his death and resurrection, has won victory over the powers, including all governments. Because we confess that Jesus Christ has been exalted as Lord of lords, we recognize no other authority’s claims as ultimate.

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