Jesus calls the church to be engaged in the political arena.
by Shawna Songer Gaines
This morning my sleepy little coffee shop is abuzz with chatter about a big political speech given last night. Eavesdropping on the conversations at tables around me becomes my “water-cooler” perspective on recent events.
A circle of retired gentlemen solve the problems of the world one expresso at a time. A father and daughter trade policy positions, and life, over steamy cups of something sweet. And a group of women with open Bibles talk about how their faith impacts their politics.
I can’t help but take in the jumble of stories all around me. Each group weaves together various bits of their life in conversation with one another. But there is one common thread through each story: politics and politicians.
Reading quickly through 2 Kings, you will find stories that at first glance seem as random as my jumble of coffee shop conversations. Stories are there of prophets speaking the word of the Lord, kings fumbling the political ball, women arguing over their sons, nations positioning themselves with and against one another, priests attending to the needs of the temple, little slave girls with a curious perspective—typical ancient world water-cooler conversations.
When you read these stories, it is tempting to assume the main story line is about the kings, the political leaders of their time, and the rest of the stories are subplots. After all, the book is about kings, isn’t it?
My husband and co-pastor, Tim, and I preached through the book of 2 Kings during a particularly heated political season a few years ago. When we first selected this book, we also assumed that it would be a timely conversation partner because of its focus on the people with the power: kings.
But what we and our congregation uncovered was the challenging and often strained relationship between prophet, priest, and king. Each character had an important role to play in leading God’s people and each one needed the other.
The prophet is the one who brings the word of the Lord. Throughout Scripture, and especially in 2 Kings, we find that the word of the Lord is not always welcome in places of power, like the palaces of kings. Just ask Elisha after his confrontation with Jezebel! The role of the prophet is to confront the king (the power-holder) with the limit of his or her position and the overwhelming authority of God.
The priest is one who mediates the covenant between a holy God and a people made holy by God’s grace alone. The mere presence of the priest is an uncomfortable reminder that we are sinners in need of grace. The priest is also the one who anoints the King from among the people, giving him the authority to rule and instructing him in the ways of the Lord. During the reign of wicked kings, priests largely fall out of the conversation, but when kings “do what is right in the eyes of the Lord,” suddenly priests reappear in the narrative.
The king is one anointed by the priest as a servant of the Lord to govern the people and receive God’s protection. They must execute law and rule with authority, but they do so as a servant who acts under the authority of the Most High King. Ideally, the king gives ear to the prophet and works in coordination with the priests to lead God’s people and navigate tenuous relationships among the nations.
An ideal relationship between prophet, priest, and king is never fully realized in the book of 2 Kings, primarily because the kings refuse to listen to the prophets and priests. Kings want to believe that they are the main characters in the story and everyone else is just the supporting cast.
But let’s give kings and political rulers a break. The fault is not theirs alone. We talk, live, and worry as though the history of the world rises and falls on their shoulders. Even our coffee shop conversations reflect it: the single thing that unites our random stories and subplots is one’s nation and the people who rule over it.
Jesus: Prophet, Priest, and King
Christians have often struggled with the role of the church in political life. Often, we think that the church has two options: 1) Propping up broken political systems and throwing ourselves completely behind one person or political agenda or, 2) Tending only to “souls” and avoiding politics and any other subject that meddles in the messy and tangible stuff of life.
The first option is what happens when the people of God forget the role of the prophet. The second option is what happens when we forget the role of priest and the means of grace in God’s world.
Where can we find a model of prophet, priest, and king working in harmony and reflecting God’s kingdom? No nation today is quite like ancient Israel. Today, God’s people are spread throughout every country, speaking every language, worshiping in great diversity and supporting any number of political systems and parties around the world. There is no one king, one prophet, one priest. But the model of prophet, priest, and king is still critical for understanding our engagement in the political process of any nation.
As Christians, we recognize that the role of prophet, priest, and king find their ultimate fulfilment in one person: Jesus Christ. Jesus is our prophet, priest, and king.
As prophet, He announces the word of the Lord in His very life because He is the Word Made Flesh. As priest, He mediates a new covenant in which God’s people are made holy in the blood of the lamb by the Lamb that was slain. As king, He has authority to rule and reign over God’s people because He is God with us.
The work of prophesying and priesting and even kinging is all done in the shadow of Christ who fills all three offices and whatever space there may be between those offices. Because we believe that Christ is coming again to bring about God’s reign with perfect harmony, the work we do right now to proclaim the word of God, mediate the grace of God and engage the processes of governing the children of God ought to bear witness to this future reality.
We have work to do
But what does this mean for Christians living a big jumbled-up story, balancing faith, family, church, work, and figuring out where politics fits in the mix? It means we have work to do.
* We must do the prophetic work of speaking truth to power, even when kings fail to listen, because Christ is the Word that changes everything.
* We can do the priestly work of mediating grace in tangible ways that are more real than any law, election, or foreign policy agenda because in Christ, grace flooded our world.
* We can do the royal work of governing without fear or anxiety when we participate in the political systems of our nations, even as kingdoms rise and fall, because Christ is our king and His reign has no end.
This work is too big for any one individual. We must work together to discern when and how the holy people of God need to be engaged in prophetic, priestly, and political work, open to truly hear from one another and be challenged to seek more faithfully after the prophet, priest, and king, Jesus Christ. The reality of Christ as prophet, priest, and king means that Christians can and should talk about politics.
In those conversations Christians will disagree with one another. But even those disagreements can be undertaken in holiness when we recognize that our political perspectives are not meant to make ourselves the main character of the story, but to spur one another to a deeper faithfulness to the One who is.
After all, neither we nor the “kings” that govern us are the main characters of this story. We can disagree as we discern together because our words, prayers, and policies are called to be submissions to, and reflections of Jesus Christ who is—
Prophet and Word. Priest and Covenant. King and God.
Shawna Songer Gaines is a pastor and author living in Nashville. She and husband, Tim Gaines, recently published Kings and Presidents: Politics in the Kingdom of God through Beacon Hill Press.