Activism: is it kingdom work?

Should Christians be activists?

Good news! Jesus is the Christ. That means he’s chosen by heaven and anointed with power to rule the earth. He is restoring heaven’s government to a world that has been terrorized by competing claims and civil war ever since humans tried to take God’s power into their own hands.

This is good news for the world because it’s how the violent hostilities are replaced by divine peace. Peace can never be achieved through force. The cross is the ultimate paradox for solving violence. The all-powerful God placed himself at the centre of the battle for power, giving himself for his people, reconciling us to himself and to one another.

This is how hostilities end. The cross is God confronting human power claims. It’s how God restores peace, by uniting us under his governance (Ephesians 2:14-17).

What does that mean for earthly kingdoms?

What does that mean for those who have carved up God’s earth under their rule? If God has rescued us out of the dominion of darkness, into the kingdom of his beloved Son (Colossians 1:13), how does this position us in relation to the rulers of this world? In declaring that Jesus is Lord, are we saying that Caesar is not?

This question makes the kingdom of God a dangerous and controversial topic. The greatest fear of the rulers of this world is losing power. It’s no surprise when they perceive the “good news” of Jesus’ kingship as a threat:

  • John the Baptist was imprisoned for preparing people to accept another king (Matthew 3:1-17), decapitated for portraying Herod as an unfit ruler (Matthew 14:3-5).
  • Jesus was arrested for making a kingship claim against Caesar, crucified as King of the Jews (John 18:33 – 19:22).
  • Paul was arrested for proclaiming another king other that Caesar (Acts 17:7).
  • Early Christians in Asia Minor were viewed as a threat to the Empire because of their testimony about Jesus and his kingdom (Revelation 1:9).

So, does the kingdom of God call us to confront the rulers of this world? Are we called to expose the evil choices of governments and banks and miners and global corporations?

God knows, there’s a huge gap between how the world is being run and how King Jesus wants it run. So does seeking the kingdom mean agitating for justice? Is that what kingdom work looks like?

Rather than give you a simplistic answer, I’d prefer you to let both sides challenge the way you think. Here’s how the proponents might express their views.

Yes: activism is kingdom work

The kingdom is God’s reign in the world. It is not internal, as if it’s merely Jesus reigning in individual hearts. It is not other-worldly, as if all that matters is where people go after they die.

God so loved this world that he got involved, sending his Son to engage the powers, to dislodge the rule of evil here. Jesus has received authority in heaven and earth, so he calls the nations to follow his instructions, to implement what he commands. The kingdom is not individuals following their own hearts; it’s an engaged community, confronting and forgiving each other, the way our king has confronted and forgiven us.

If you don’t think Jesus was an activist, have you considered where he ate his meals? Where do you think the prostitutes and tax collectors ate? This was a social protest. Jesus took his disciples into places where polite Galileans didn’t go. If you had lived then and your teenagers wanted to hang out with Jesus, would have said, “No way! You’re not going where Jesus goes!”?

Jesus certainly challenged the self-appointed leaders of these communities. He denounced them as hypocrites who not only missed the kingdom but kept others out. Overturning the temple is classic activism.

Paul was an activist too. Jesus explicitly called Paul to political activism — to present the authority of his name to nations and kings, warning Paul that the rulers wouldn’t handle this message well (Acts 9:15-16). Paul literally did this, before the Jewish leaders and gentile rulers like King like Agrippa (Acts 26 – 26). When he got the opportunity, his big move was to appeal to Caesar so that he could announce Jesus’ kingship to the Emperor. The climax of the Book of Acts has Paul in Rome as an ambassador of another kingdom, announcing King Jesus (not Caesar) as our true Lord, and nobody stops him (Acts 28:31)!

The kingdom calls us to activism: social, political, and environmental activism.

No: activism is not kingdom work

What did Jesus ever do that could be called activism against Rome? What complaints did he voice against Herod’s unjust rule? Sure, he confronted the religious rulers, but he never raised his voice against Rome’s systemic oppression of God’s people in Palestine.

Jesus expressed his desire for justice in an entirely different way than activists do. He was not known for raising a confronting voice in order to be heard in the streets (Matthew 12:19). Even when John was imprisoned, Jesus raised no protest against Herod.

Paul never organized rallies to complain about injustice in the Empire. He never wrote to Caesar to instruct him on how the world should be run or to demand an end to slavery. We are not struggling against the flesh-and-blood rulers of this world: they’re merely pawns in the hands of spiritual powers (Ephesians 6:12).

Instead, Paul called us to obey the governing authorities. God has set them over us, so we owe them honour and respect (Romans 13:1-7). God establishes his kingdom, not man. Activism against the God-appointed rulers is disrespectful, and it’s not kingdom work.

Who’s right?

Are those micro-summaries fair to both sides? The two views are incompatible, so which one is right?

Your answer really does matter. So much depends on it. It defines what the church should be doing, what message we proclaim, and how we spend our limited resources.

We must engage this question. We will.

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

4 thoughts on “Activism: is it kingdom work?”

  1. This had been a question on my lips for a long time Allen. So often Activism tips over into ungodly behavior: accusations, slander and even lawbreaking and violence. I’m unable to see activism performed in way that brings honor to God. Im sure it’s possible… 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Perhaps part of the tension is how ‘activism’ either defined and outworked. If I see activism as only the vision of loud, violent protests then it would seem to have very little to do with Jesus. However, if activism is the non-violent actions such as those enacted by Ghandi or Martin Luther King Junior, then maybe it plays a role in kingdom business.
    Of course the other aspect that we need to be careful of is to take the cultural setting of the 1st century and how Jesus and Paul and others reacted to it and make this the pattern for how Christians in the 21st century should act. Of course Jesus and Paul did not write to Caesar, no-one did.
    When so much of the ‘social’ work, that I believe is Kingdom work, had been taken out of individuals hands and done by government agencies, how does this impact on kingdom activism?
    Was Jesus’ non-reaction to John being arrested an example of how we should act towards the ruling government or was it culturally contextualised so that he could continue to carry out his mission without being arrested by Herod? Perhaps Deidrick Bonhoeffer wold have something to say about this?
    Like so much of life and living under the authority of our King, this area has much that is grey about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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