The Great Commission and Political Involvement of the Church
Assistant Professor (Theological Studies)
Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20)
The first words in the Great Commission are “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” and so Jesus’ authority is the foundation of evangelism. This authority is not harsh or oppressive; it comes from God, allowing those who willingly submit to Jesus’ authority to live an abundant life. Evangelism is in fact Christians witnessing Christ with their transformed lives, lives that are so attractive that people are drawn to believe. That is, they turn from pursuing the world’s powers, money and status, and willingly submit to Jesus’ authority.
The primary objects of the Great Commission are “all nations” – people in the world. However, conflicts arise when people believe and submit to Jesus: between believers and their families, between biblical and secular values, and between the church and political powers. These conflicts arise when Christians turn from obeying worldly authorities toward following Jesus’ authority. Therefore, evangelism entails power struggles and conflicts between Jesus and the world. This is why Jesus’ all-encompassing authority is important in evangelism. Knowing that all authority is in Jesus’ hands, we can be courageous in the face of conflicts.
“All authority” includes, of course, political authority. How are we to understand Jesus having political authority on earth? Martin Luther’s doctrine of the ‘two kingdoms’ has immensely impacted Christian political thinking. He believes that God has instituted two kingdoms on earth: The ‘earthly kingdom’ governs worldly matters through political powers and the laws, and the ‘heavenly kingdom’ governs spiritual matters through the church and the gospel. While both are ruled by God, they are separate: the political powers do not interfere with church matters and the church does not get involved with political issues. Yet, believers are members of both the church and societies, and in reality ‘worldly’ and ‘spiritual’ matters overlap. The Bible has not distinguished the world in this way, either. Therefore, the “doctrine of the two kingdoms” is inadequate.
Political theologian Oliver O’Donovan points out that Jesus never splits the world into two unrelated realms. Instead, He speaks about two separate times or eras: before and after His coming to the world. Before Jesus, different worldly entities held worldly authorities. But Jesus gathered all these authorities into His hands after His resurrection. Now in the end times, political powers are authorized by Jesus to rule and so they should submit themselves under Jesus’ authority. But political powers are not people who can repent so their submission cannot be “repentance.” Instead, they should offer a space that allows people to hear the gospel and repent.
How can political powers offer this space? From a careful reading of the Scripture, O’Donovan points out that there is an active and a passive dimension that political powers can achieve this. Actively, political powers should properly administer law and judgment, maintain justice and social order, and implement good social and economic policies. Passively, they must not impose any ideologies or control the free exchange of ideas. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion should be upheld.
Now in this age of ‘already but not yet,’ political powers are yet to be completely submissive to Jesus. The church should guide them into this submission. As mentioned above, political powers should offer a space for people to hear the gospel and repent. This space should be provided through effective administration of law and judgment as well as safeguarding the freedom of speech and religion. The church should guild them into offering these in society. The early church also involved in political powers based on these same principles: early believers insisted that political powers must allow Christians to freely worship and preach the gospel. They were, however, persecuted and martyred under the political climate of the time. Different political situations call for different strategies, but the church should involve in politics following the same principles in all situations. Thus, the Great Commission has two “frontiers”: the people and the political powers. The former need to submit to Jesus through repentance, and the latter need to offer a space for the people to repent. 1
Therefore, the church must actively participate in politics. Christians should involve by overseeing, assessing, and expressing opinions on government policies, and may involve in the government as civil servants or councillors. There are also theological principles for Christians to judge government policies and the works of government officials. Both “frontiers” – the people and the political powers – are equally important with regard to the Great Commission, so the church must not neglect either.
In Hong Kong today, threats to the freedom of expression is looming in the horizon. Political ideologies are being disseminated while the rule of law is being undermined. The government has yet to fully submit under Jesus’ authority. Christians must actively involve in politics so as to fulfill our roles in the Great Commission.
1 See Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).