The church is a political society.* As a political society, it differs from the political entities of the world. It will never sit on the UN council. Instead, the church exists among nations, follows local laws, and does good to those who surround her. Even so, at the core of a Christian’s identity lies the confession that Jesus is Lord.
Yet rather than subverting and revolting against earthly governments, the fact that Jesus is Lord drives Christians to do good to all people, pray for those in authority, and obey the laws of nations. The Lordship of Jesus leads us to obey earthly lords because we know “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:2).
So how then should we understand these two realities, namely, that Jesus is Lord and yet we submit to earthly authorities on earth? The answer lies in studying the whole Bible and reflecting on its meaning. One particularly important passage for understanding how Christians can be good political citizens appears in Jeremiah 29.
Here are seven ways that Jeremiah 29 helps us to be political Christians during our earthly sojourn as we await our promised inheritance.
First, we should trust that God guides the hands of earthly rulers
Jeremiah affirms, “Nebuchadnezzar had taken [the people] into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (29:1). Yet in the letter Jeremiah sends to the exiles, God says, “I have sent [the exiles] into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (29:4).
Jeremiah and God are not at odds with each other. Jeremiah knows perfectly well that Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and sent the people into exile. He affirms the historical reality of it. It is true. But behind every cause lies the first cause: God.
Nebuchadnezzar freely conquered and exiled the people, yet his freedom coincided with God’s intent for Israel. The Lord wielded Nebuchadnezzar like an ax without abrogating the king’s freedom. Both God and Nebuchadnezzar acted. Both did so freely yet with a certain hierarchical priority. God’s decree will come to pass.
The point here is simply that while we can sometimes see the good and the bad of rulers as somehow vying against God’s control, they are not. Certainly, God uses means to accomplish his will, and we must use our freedom for good ends. All the while, God does not lack control over the hands and minds of earthly rulers.
As Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.”
Second, we should usually work within established political systems
Jeremiah’s letter went first to Nebuchadnezzar (Jer 29:3). From his reception and reading, we can infer that the exiles also received it afterwards. Further, the letter sending itself went along official lines: “The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon” (29:3).
As a political creature and prophet, Jeremiah did not feel as though he needed to bypass regular means to communicate with the Israelites. In fact, he used a standard governmental and cultural structure to communicate a prophecy from the living God!
Third, we can appeal to rulers with transparency
A simple but worthwhile point to make is that Jeremiah sent the letter to the king of Babylon. He appealed to a ruler directly because God’s people do not need to be ashamed of their behaviour. When known, God’s people do civic and societal good since God leads us to do so as the next point makes clear.
Fourth, we must seek the good of the city
The letter opens by saying:
4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. (Jer 29:4–9)
The Lord of hosts writes to the exiles through king Nebuchadnezzar. The king would have seen these words, and they would have, as one might imagine, pleased him.
Israel’s God tells his people to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Despite the fact that Nebuchadnezzar violently conquered Judah and her people, God tells his people to seek the welfare of Nebuchadnezzar’s city. They are to pray for it in fact.
Small wonder that many years later Paul would likewise encourage prayer for rulers in authority over them (1 Tim 2:2). The point of such prayers, we should not miss, is that believers may “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2). The quiet life should not be confused with a passive life, but one that prays that no impediments get in the way of the Gospel (1 Tim 2:3ff).
Elsewhere Paul advises the Thessalonians to lead quiet lives so that they may not depend on anyone (1 Thess 4:12). In both cases, a quiet life that prays and actively seeks to benefit the city (or nation or country) allows Christians to live as a political society, sojourning across the world without depending purely on earthly kings but on the King in heaven and each other.
Fifth, we should build institutions
In the passage cited above (Jer 29:4–9), God tells the Israelites to build households and to marry and live their lives. They should also seek the welfare of the city. Now, God promises to restore Israel in 70 years (29:15). Even so, God wants his people to build and support the city in which they dwell despite their temporary residence.
Applied to us, it follows that as a political people spread abroad, we should build and support institutions despite our final destination being heaven. It is good, and it fits into God’s plan for us to live within the world despite having citizenship in heaven. We still must work within social and civil patterns. These are in fact good to pursue.
Having the promise of return to the Promised Land should not mean that we fail to do good where we live. It means that we should pursue the good of our country whichever it might be. We build and make it healthy and good and better than it was. We are the salt of the world and so preserve its goodness. We are the soul of the world and so give it life, to borrow the words of one anonymous second-century Christian.
Sixth, we should place our hope in God, not earthly rulers
While Christians must seek the good of the city, they should not place their hope in the city. As the letter says:
10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jer 29:10–14)
God tells Israel to await his promise. He has a good end set up before them, one which he has purposed in his heart. He knows the future—he has plans for his beloved people.
Their role then is not to make God’s salvation come faster. Rather, they must wait. Seventy years God has prescribed for his people. Nothing will change his decree, even if Daniel will explain the fuller meaning of this promise in his book (Dan 9).
Hoping in God and not the city of man defines a primary political duty in this life. We do all we can for the common good, while never hoping in the common good as our final good. God brings it. We wait. And as we wait, we seek the good of neighbours whom we are to love as ourselves.
Seventh, we should not listen to religious leaders who prophesy lies
God would take care of king Nebuchadnezzar in his time and in his own way (Dan 4). But the people of God should not pretend to speak for God when they do not. The prophets of the exiles spoke pleasing but false words to them.
The prophet Hananiah, for example, told those in Judah that Babylon would be defeated and they would be home in two years (Jer 28:2–3). God decisively rejects this prophet’s words (Jer 28:12–17). Such false hope would lead to rebellion against God who in fact authorized Babylon to rule.
And while the exiles wanted to get even with their enemies and to reject the authority of Babylon during their exile, God says no (Jer 29:15–23). While the letter does not precisely say what the content prophets’ lies were, they likely parallel the kind of thing that Hananiah said: hope in immediate salvation and rebellion against Babylon.
This year has taught Christians that we need more than ever a political theology. Yet any political theology not grounded on God’s word will flounder. So thankfully, God’s address to the exiles in Jeremiah 29 provides us with a rich insight into what it means to live as sojourners and exiles in a foreign country (1 Pet 2:11) while our citizenship lies in heaven (Phil 3:20).
Like Israel before us, we live far away from our promised rest in a foreign country. Here, we await our Saviour who will bring us home to the Promised Land—our heavenly rest. While we wait here, we are not idle. As we trust in God, we ought to seek the good of the city in which we dwell.
While we proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ, we live as citizens of heaven on earth. We show the world a foretaste of heaven in our love and good deeds. We preserve the world as salt. We illuminate it as light. We share life as the soul of the world. The church is a political society—one that hopes deeply in God while doing good wherever she finds herself.
*I am borrowing the phrase political society from Oliver O’Donovan