Once upon a time in a land called Judaea, there lived these guys called Pharisees. Now the Pharisees kept looking for the Kingdom of God, and they felt that if they could teach the people to be good enough, then God would establish his kingdom in Jerusalem. This idea made sense to many people at the time, but then this guy named Jesus showed up.
Jesus taught that the Pharisees were looking for the right thing but that they were looking for it in the wrong place. The Kingdom of God is not a political kingdom in space or time; it’s spiritual and eternal. Jesus’ own disciples had trouble understanding this idea. Even at the very end of Jesus’ time on earth they were saying, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Eventually the disciples would figure it out, and they spread the gospel that Jesus’ perfect sacrifice brings about the kingdom. The early church grew.
A few hundred years passed, and a Roman emperor decided to endorse Christianity. After Constantine, the church gained more momentum, especially politically. It seemed as though the church had “conquered” the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century, Rome was a “Christian Empire,” and many Christians stared thinking in the same way those old Pharisees did. They believed that the Kingdom of God was coming, that it was going to be a kingdom in time and space, and that it was more or less the same as Rome. But Rome fell.
Augustine of Hippo had to remind Roman Christians that the Kingdom of God and the Roman Empire were not the same thing. God’s kingdom is eternal, while the kingdom of the Caesars must pass away. In the years since Augustine, however, Christians often fell into Pharisaical thinking, confusing the church with a certain geopolitical entity.
It’s for this reason that I appreciate the First Amendment and the “separation of church and state.” It helps protect us from equating the Kingdom of God with the government of our nation. It protects us from desiring too much political influence.
I’m not saying that Christians shouldn’t be involved in the political process. We should speak truth to power. We certainly need to work to end injustices. We need to seek the end of evils like abortion and human trafficking. But the church can’t forget its purpose. The church isn’t on earth to lobby Washington in an attempt to recreate the Garden of Eden in the Land of Nod. Jesus gave us our task: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
God builds his kingdom by transforming lives, not by refining America’s legal code. The Kingdom of God is at hand. The church is a colony or vanguard of the kingdom, and we wait patiently for its fulfillment on the last day. We wait patiently but not passively. We have a job to do, make disciples of all nations. While we wait, let’s not forget what we’re about.
This post also appears in the March 28th issue of The Collegian.