The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed

Since reading a book that contrasted the kingdoms of the world with the kingdom of God, I have been reflecting on what Jesus said about God’s kingdom. What is the kingdom of God? I believe that it is a real kingdom that will be established when Jesus returns and that those of us who follow him are to prepare for it now by following his example. What is the kingdom like? Jesus used parables to answer this question, including the Parable of the Mustard Seed. I heard this parable when I was child and I remember being shown how tiny a mustard seed is. The message seemed very simple – great things start out very small. But is that all Jesus was saying?

The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables.

Mark 4:11

Jesus told seven parables about the kingdom of God. A parable is a story or statement that conveys a message indirectly by comparing something to something else. Jesus used parables because he knew that many people were too hardhearted to understand his message. The parable comparing the kingdom of God to the mustard seed is found in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 13. Below is the NIV version from Luke.

The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast

Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?  It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.”

Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

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When I read the parable of the mustard seed today, especially considering the parable of the yeast that follows it, Jesus seems to be saying that God’s rule in human hearts will start very small and grow or expand exponentially. This seems like a very positive message.

When I searched for commentary on the parable, I found a couple of people who see a deeper meaning and a hidden warning. In explaining what he calls the parable of the growth of the mustard seed, David Legge made a few points about the parable that I had not noticed. One, he said it is important to consider the context of the parable, the timing of Christ’s message. At that time, the teachers of the law were indignant because Jesus healed on the Sabbath; they accused him of being possessed. The Pharisees were plotting with the Herodians on how they might kill Jesus. Even his own family thought Jesus was out of his mind.

In an environment that was hostile to his message, Jesus told the parable of the sower (Mark 4). As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.

The theme of the parable of the soils is that God’s word will be ignored and rejected. And just as birds came and ate seeds from the path, Satan will come and take away the word from many who hear it. Very few people will hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop.

Keeping this context in mind, Legge made a second point. Mustard seeds grow into bushes not into a tree as in the parable. Some mustard plants could grow into a 12 to 15 foot tree but that would be unnatural, abnormal, unhealthy growth.

Legge then made a third point about something in the parable that never seemed significant to me. He said we have to account for the birds in the branches. In an earlier sermon on parables, Legge said that a parable is not an allegory and that every symbol does not necessarily have to stand for something. But in the parable of the mustard seed, he sees the birds as symbolic because birds were also mentioned in the parable of the sower. Legge suggests that the mustard tree represents “an imitation of a great world power. It aspires to greatness beyond its means, it’s reaching to heaven but it is firmly rooted in the earth, and it is harbouring these birds which already in the context refer to demonic forces.”

I looked at the birds in the parable as God’s creatures who find shelter in a great tree. But Legge points out that birds are natural enemies of the sower. In the context of the parables of the sower and the mustard seed, birds could represent false teachers who keep the message of the kingdom of God from taking root. Legge concludes that from small beginnings, the kingdom of God would succeed, in worldly terms, by growing unhealthily and abnormally “to an empire in which its enemies could even shelter and nest.”

This interpretation of the parable of the mustard seed is certainly intriguing. Richard T. Ritenbaugh makes a similar argument in his sermon on the parables of Matthew 13. He notes that a seed is the means by which a plant grows and that “it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say that the Kingdom of God grows by means of the Kingdom of God.” In other words, the mustard seed represents an agent of the kingdom of God and not the kingdom itself. The mustard seed represents the church, the few people who are chosen to spread the Good News.

Ritenbaugh continues by repeating Legge’s point about the unnatural growth of the mustard seed in the parable. Something happens to make the mustard plant grow beyond its natural limit. Then the birds of the air, which symbolize demons, find a home in the tree. Ritenbaugh suggests reading Daniel 4:19-27. It tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about an enormous tree. Wild animals found shelter under it and birds lived in it branches. He also saw a messenger from heaven who said, “Cut down the tree and trim off its branches…” Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that he was that tree. God humbled Nebuchadnezzar to force him to acknowledge God’s sovereignty.

This not only shows the rise of the great false church, but it shows the tendency of the church, at all times, to become large, great, and worldly.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh

I am on the fence about whether to believe these interpretations of the parable of the mustard seed. I still see the parable as an encouraging word from Jesus. First and foremost, the purpose of the parable was to explain what the kingdom of God is like, not the church. The parable of the yeast that immediately follows in both Matthew and Luke has no hidden meaning. The kingdom of God will grow exponentially from small beginnings. Finally, I think that Jesus was quite explicit when he warned people about false prophets. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.  See, I have told you ahead of time.

Regardless of whether Legge and Ritenbaugh are correct about the meaning of the parable of the mustard seed, I give them credit for making an important point about the unhealthy growth of the church. When churches promote false teachings like the prosperity gospel, when they are more concerned about entertaining people and making money than about souls, when they become too worldly, Satan has made a home in the branches.

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Photo by toinane on Unsplash

Keys to the Kingdom

Reading The Myth of a Christian Nation (Gregory Boyd) affirmed my belief that Christians should not put their hope in politics because politics tends to corrupt religion. What I really loved about Boyd’s book though is that he reminded me that the hope of the world lies in a kingdom that is not of this world. So I am taking a deeper dive into scripture to remind myself of all the things Jesus said about the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ was sent to proclaim the good news of this kingdom and he promised to give us the keys!

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Matthew 16:19

The kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven were mentioned frequently in the New Testament, 68 times and 32 times, respectively. Mark and Luke used the phrase “kingdom of God,” while Matthew wrote exclusively of the “kingdom of heaven.” Some people think that the terms have different meanings. Got Questions Ministries notes that Jesus used the phrases interchangeably and both phrases were used in parallel accounts of the same parables.

I searched the gospels and made a list of seven keys to the kingdom.

  1. You must be born again.
  2. Repent and believe the good news.
  3. Receive the kingdom of God like a little child.
  4. Understand your spiritual poverty.
  5. Do not pretend to be righteous.
  6. Practice what you preach.
  7. Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness.

1. You must be born again.

When Jesus said you must be born again, Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus was saying. Nicodemus was thinking in anatomical terms and Jesus was speaking in spiritual terms. Flesh gives birth to flesh and the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:3 and 5)

2. Repent and believe the good news.

The dictionary defines repent as “to feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one’s wrongdoing or sin.” True repentance is more than just remorse. It means completely turning away from your sin and surrendering your life to God.

Although being born again means believing in Jesus and surrendering your life to him, believers must continue to confess their sins and repent because even those who are born again struggle with sin. We may even struggle with unbelief.

The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news! (Mark 1:15)

3. Receive the kingdom of God like a little child.

Little children are innocent. They have not yet been conformed to “the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2). The world places too much value on money, possessions, power and social status. Children have none of these things. They have not yet become jaded and cynical. Because children are powerless, they are more trusting. They are more humble because they have not yet convinced themselves that they have all the answers.

Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. (Mark 10:15)

4. Understand your spiritual poverty.

The first of the ten Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount is blessed are the poor in spirit. Billy Graham said that if you want to understand what this means, substitute the word humble for the word poor. When we approach God with a humble spirit, we understand our true spiritual poverty. We see how much we need God.

Jesus also warned that wealth makes it nearly impossible to enter the kingdom of God. It is not that there is anything inherently sinful about financial success or wealth. The rich are more likely to become overly proud and self-satisfied. Solomon said, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.” Wealth can easily become an idol. You cannot serve both God and money.

Of course, those who are actually poor may be tempted to envy those who are rich. No matter how much material wealth you have, it is important to store your treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21).

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? (James 2:5)

5. Do not merely pretend to be righteous.

Jesus called out hypocrites for the impostors they are (Matthew 23). God sees our hearts and is not impressed with outward displays of piety. On the inside, hypocrites are unclean. On the inside they are full of greed, self-indulgence, wickedness. “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” If you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, pay attention to your heart. Pay attention to the words of your mouth. Focus on your own sin and stop worrying about everyone else’s. Clean the inside of the cup and dish.

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. (Matthew 21:31)

6. Practice what you preach.

When asked to name the greatest commandment of the Law, Jesus said, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And the second greatest command, he said, is “love your neighbor as yourself.” Nevertheless, Jesus said that we should not set aside any one of the least of the commandments because if we do, we will be least in the kingdom of heaven. We should take sin seriously and do whatever we can to not stumble or to cause anyone else to sin.

Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)

And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell. (Mark 9:47)

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions  and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Galatians 5:22)

7. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness

I thought about putting this one at the beginning of my list because Jesus said “seek first his kingdom” and how can you find the kingdom of God unless you seek it? Like repentance, seeking God and his righteousness does not stop when you become a Christian. I seek God because I understand my spiritual poverty. I know that I do not always practice what I preach.

Many people are too busy worrying about day-to-day life to seek God’s kingdom. Jesus said we should not worry about the things we need for life, like food and clothing. Life is about more than food; we are not just physical beings. Make seeking God and his righteousness your first priority and he will take care of everything else.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)

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I find it hard to even define the kingdom of God. Got Questions says “broadly speaking, the kingdom of God is the rule of an eternal, sovereign God over all the universe…More narrowly, the kingdom of God is a spiritual rule over the hearts and lives of those who willingly submit to God’s authority.”

Gregory Boyd says that “in seeing the kingdom, people see what God is like.” Simply stated, the kingdom of God looks like Jesus. So if we want to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, look to the example of Jesus.

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Photo by Jason D on Unsplash

A Mess of Contradictions

My small group finally watched lesson 10 of The Truth Project, The American Experiment: Stepping Stones. In this lesson, Del Tackett claimed that Christians used biblical principles as the foundation for America’s republic and that believers today must carry on that experiment if America is to survive and succeed. I knew before watching the video that I disagree with Del Tackett’s claim that God has a divine design for government. I believe that in trying to “take America back for God” through political means, Christians have done great harm to Christianity and evangelism. Nevertheless, watching the lesson motivated me to dig deeper into God’s truths.

Religion and Morality

The video for Lesson 10 began with Dr. Tackett speaking outside the normal classroom setting. He said there were going to be three ground rules for the lesson: he would not seek to deify America, he would not try to deify the Founding Fathers, and he would not cast blame on non-Christians.

Tackett began by discussing the role that religion once played in childhood education and in well-respected higher educational institutions like Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton. He quoted Gouverneur Morris, a contributing author of the Constitution, who said that “religion is the only solid basis of good morals; therefore education should teach the precepts of religion, and the duties of man toward God.” He quoted Noah Webster: “In my view, the Christian Religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed…no truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian Religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privilege of a free people.”

Before he spoke at length about the founding fathers, Tackett described how his own understanding of the nation’s religious and moral foundations evolved when he went to Washington, D.C. to work in the George H. W. Bush administration. He observed that there were many religious murals in the Capital rotunda. He found himself reflecting on Revelation 2:5. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

He said that he watched a reenactment of George Washington’s Farewell Address and it was then that he understood that as a child, he had been lied to about the nation’s religious history.

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

George Washington

Tackett then presented quotes about religion and morality from several founding fathers or influential thinkers including John Adams, Benjamin Rush, Samuel Adams, Charles Carroll, and Patrick Henry. Several expressed the view that religion and morality are the foundation for an enduring republic and that liberty is not possible without morality.

the only foundation for…a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.

Benjamin Rush

In his blog about The American Experiment, Elliot Ritzema notes that “Christianity was not the only influence in the founding of the United States, but one of many…” While Tackett demonstrated that many of the founding fathers believed that religion and morality were important for preserving liberty, he did not prove that the United States was founded as a Christian nation based on biblical principles.

In an ideal world, government would be based on a sound moral principles and all government officials would be virtuous. In reality, even our greatest heroes had feet of clay. I admire John Adams, but he was proud, hot-tempered, and envious of his peers. I admire Thomas Jefferson’s views on liberty and equality and yet he owned slaves and was very self-indulgent.

If we are to learn anything from history, it is imperative that Christians be truthful about our messy and contradictory history.

Idolatry

Can patriotism become idolatry? Patriotism is not a bad thing. We should be grateful for the blessings of liberty. But when patriotism combines with political ideology, it often supplants the gospel.

When this happens, debates begin to rage about caring for the poor, the sick and the immigrant, debates which would be incomprehensible in any other era of the Church. When patriotism becomes an idol, the poor can become our enemies, the alien among us can become someone to be feared and the outcast can become someone we actively seek to marginalize. When patriotism becomes an idol, the “other” whom we despise is the least of these.

Zach Hunt, Relevant Magazine

Tackett pointedly said he would not deify America or the founding fathers. When he exalted America’s founding fathers for being religious and moral based on a few selected people and a few selective quotes, he engaged in the same sort of historical revisionism that he often complains about. He presented a glorified, false image.

Without providing any examples, Tackett said that there is a deep hatred of America in liberal educational institutions and that it is now in vogue to hate America. In his blog post, Elliot Ritzema quoted Tackett as he explained why he thinks there is a rise in hatred for America:

Darkness doesn’t overtake light; light overtakes darkness. Why this rise of hatred for America? Why is this historic revisionism going on? If the enemy can destroy the Christian’s passion for America, then he has won the major battle for the soul of this nation. If you do not have a heart for her, if you don’t have a passion for her, you can learn all you want about Christian worldview… but you won’t do diddly doo for her… If Jesus removes the lampstand, we will become a dark nation like many who have fallen before us.

Del Tackett

Think about these words. If the enemy can destroy the Christian’s passion for America, then he has won the major battle for the soul of this nation. I would argue that if Satan can deceive people, especially Christians, about the true purpose and meaning of Christianity, he has won a major battle for our souls. If he can convince Christians to use the power of the sword instead of the power of the cross, he has won a major battle for our souls. If he can take Christ out of Christianity, he has won a major battle for our souls.

In equating America to the Church in Revelations 2:5, Tackett idolizes America. While America has done many good things to help other nations, in comparing her to a light on the hill (Matthew 5:14-16), he exalts a nation that is far from righteous. Pew Research reports that only 39% of Americans are highly religious, and a small fraction of those attend church regularly or read the Bible.

Tackett also broke his own rule about casting blame on non-believers, blaming liberal educational institutions for somehow spreading hatred of America and blaming both Charles Darwin and Christopher Langdell, a Dean of Harvard Law School, for the evolution of law school teaching to a case study approach. In suggesting that anyone who criticizes America hates her, Tackett implied that America is above all criticism. This too is idolatrous.

Grief and Hope

According to Tackett, the founding fathers implemented an experimental form of government based on religion, specifically Christianity. Tackett grieves for America. “America has largely forgotten God and denied the validity of her biblically based Christian roots.” Tackett asked believers to consider how far we have fallen as a nation and to take deliberate steps to salvage it. Yes, do consider how far we have fallen. American Christians who believe that government’s role is to enforce morality overwhelmingly chose a godless, amoral man to lead this nation.

I also grieve for America but not in the same way as Tackett. I grieve not for the soul of the nation but for the souls of Americans and for Christians who have been led astray by false teachings. I grieve for those who come here thinking this country is a beacon of light only to have the door slammed shut in their faces. I grieve for Americans who will never hear the Good News because Christians have made Christianity so unappealing. I grieve because this nation is a mess of contradictions.

What did I get out of this lesson? The desire to seek a different kind of kingdom, where the King of kings and Lord of lords has the power to change people from the inside out. He will proclaim justice to the nations. In his name, the nations will put their hope. In his name, I put my hope.

Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
    the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
    no one will hear his voice in the streets.
 A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
  In his name the nations will put their hope.

Matthew 12:18-21

On being an outsider at church

Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.

Jesus – Luke 12:51

After my last post, my brother told me he is glad politics isn’t mentioned in his church – he would hate to feel isolated because his political views might not match those of other members of the congregation. My pastor tries not to be political and he rarely mentions politics in his sermons. Where I have been exposed to political views of the congregation is in my small group or koinonia. I have been in two groups so far and in both, I have found my political views to be at odds with others in the group. When politics is discussed, I feel like an outsider, like I am not following the same Christ. How can I have real fellowship and unity of purpose with Christians who are not like-minded?

My first small group met in the home of a member of the church, a woman who has served as a deacon. It was a great group of women and we shared and learned a lot in our Bible studies. But it became really uncomfortable when a couple of people claimed that Obama was a socialist. When the hostess called Obama the anti-Christ, I dropped out of the group and told her that the political comments were the reason.

I was invited to join my current group by a woman I met in a Sunday school class. At first we met in the home of one of the women but she travels a lot so we started meeting at church. As I’ve gotten to know the women, I’ve figured out that once again, I am an outsider. A few years ago, in response to news stories about a refugee crisis, one group member said she would throw the children back over the fence. WWJD? Definitely not that. When we were discussing “taking up your cross,” another woman said that for her that means speaking out against homosexuality. Not once has she expressed any concern for their souls. Another woman has expressed anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant views.

Prior to the 2016 presidential election, I heard a guy telling someone about a Sunday school class on voting your Christian values. The person asked whether there was a consensus in the class about who to vote for. He just laughed and said, oh yeah. I knew I would not have wanted to be in that class. After the election, the senior pastor said he thought that those of us who were upset about the results did not trust God enough. In my small group, one of the women laughed about the negative reaction to the election – “snowflakes.”

I thought about searching for a different church, one that reflects my views on God’s love, mercy, and justice, and the kind of life that Christ calls me to live. I decided to stay where I am because the word of God is preached, even if much of the congregation doesn’t really get the message of Jesus Christ. The scripture is being fulfilled. They hear but never understand.

When politics comes up in my small group, I feel like a visitor from another planet. The much repeated statistic about the election is that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. When I heard that statistic, I looked around at my group and thought to myself, that sounds right. I am the one in five who could not vote for the man who is the antithesis of my Savior. I am an outsider in my Christian group because my allegiance is to Christ, not to a political party.

Sometimes I feel like a liberal among conservatives and sometimes like a conservative among liberals.  I have conservative theology—I believe the Bible—but that leads me to “progressive” opinions about politics, because the Bible has much to say about justice and helping the poor.  And I believe we are called to show love and grace even toward people we disagree with, especially toward people we disagree with.

Philip Yancey, Author of Christians and Politics: Uneasy Partners

In being an outsider, I face challenging questions about Christian fellowship. Can I have a meaningful connection with people I disagree with? Can we live in harmony with each other (Romans 12:16)? Can we encourage each other (1 Thessalonians 5:11)? Can we accept one other (Romans 15:7)? Can we be kind and compassionate to each other (Ephesians 4:32)? Can we teach and admonish one another (Colossians 3:16)?

I can easily answer yes to most of these questions. Despite our differences, we are united in our love of God. We are one in our desire to seek Him. And yet, because my political beliefs are at odds with the rest of the group, I experience a lot of inner turmoil. I don’t accept views that contradict the teachings of Jesus. When those views are expressed, what should I say? Most of the time, I keep my mouth shut. I can get angry when I am passionate about an issue and I know that I should be gentle and not quarrelsome. That said, I could not be silent when one of the women said she hoped that Trump is a Christian and another said that “they say he is a Christian.” (Read 1 John 1:5-10.)

It would be easier to only worship with people who share my political views. But I have to live in this world; I can’t isolate myself from people who believe differently. In the Parable of the Weeds, the enemy sowed weeds among the wheat. The servant asked the owner, do you want us to pull up the weeds? “No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.”

Taking Christ Back for America

In my last post, I wrote about The Truth Project’s practice of conflating religion and politics which was most obvious in lesson nine, The State: Whose Law. Next week, I will watch the lesson titled The American Experiment: Stepping Stones. For years, I have watched conservative Christians blur the lines between politics and religion. I’ve read the study outline so I know that Dr. Tackett claims that America was founded as a Christian nation, the nation is now denying our biblically based Christian roots, and “believers who care deeply and passionately about their country” must try to salvage a government based on Christian values. Yet today it is so easy to see the corrupting influence of politics on Christianity.

Around the same time that Focus on the Family published The Truth Project video series (© 2006), an evangelical pastor named Gregory Boyd was feeling pressure from “right-wing political and religious sources” and from people in his congregation to participate in political activities, including distributing political leaflets and encouraging the congregation to vote for “the right candidate.” As he explains in the introduction to his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church, he decided to preach a sermon series explaining why his church should not join in promoting right-wing political activity. He also aimed to explain why the Christian faith should not be closely associated with any political point of view.

Boyd said that he received a lot of positive feedback from his sermon series. Some people were grateful because they had always felt like outsiders in the evangelical community for not “toeing the conservative party line.” (I know the feeling all to well.) But he also said he had never received such intense negative feedback. About 20% of his congregation left the church.

Boyd’s thesis is that “a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry.” In their quest for political power, these evangelicals have exchanged the good news of the gospel for political ideals and agendas. Like Tackett, many of these Christians mistakenly believe that they are “taking America back for God.”

How do conservative Christians aim to take America back for God? They vote for Christian candidates, oppose abortion, oppose gay marriage, fight to keep the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, fight to keep prayer in public schools and to display the Ten Commandments in public places, and make a really big deal about their right to say Merry Christmas.

Anyone who has been around the past couple of decades has observed Christians try to transform the kingdom of God to their own desired design for the kingdom of this world. The result is a quasi-religion that no longer resembles Christ.

It is heartening to find a pastor these days who is not afraid to say how idolatrous and dangerous it is to fuse religion and politics. Anything that takes the place of God in a believer’s heart is an idol. A Christian’s identity should come from Christ and not from their nation or political party. Believers who fuse their religious and political identities are easily led astray by false teachers who bring the way of truth into disrepute, twisting and distorting biblical truths to serve their own purposes. And sadly, when nonbelievers see that Christians are no different from anyone else, they are turned off by the hypocrisy.

The Myth of a Christian Nation

Why is there no such thing as a Christian nation? As J.D. Walt observed, “the only entity that can actually be Christian is a human being.” Many individuals claim to be a Christian without really understanding what it means to follow Christ. Christianity is not a cultural identity. Christianity is not a political identity. You don’t become a Christian by going to church or being baptized. You become a Christian by confessing your sins and making a very personal and life-transforming decision to follow Christ.

The Truth Project feeds the myth of a Christian nation in part by claiming that God has a specific design and purpose for government. Contrary to Tackett’s assertion, God doesn’t design worldly governments. As Boyd notes, God uses governments as they are, “in all their ungodly rebellious ways,” to serve his divine purposes. In other words, God doesn’t mandate one form of government over another. However, if governments preserve law and order in the right way (with justice and mercy), they serve God’s purpose (Romans 13).

The Truth Project believes that even though not all of America’s early leaders were Christians, they all agreed that the success of America’s republican form of government is “directly dependent upon the virtue and morality of her people, and that virtue and morality are necessarily founded upon religion – by which all meant the Christian religion.”

But the truth is, all worldly governments are flawed, even governments that proclaim “in God we trust.” Boyd points out that the god of this age is Satan (2 Corinthians 4:4). Satan inserts himself in earthly affairs and deceives the nations (Revelations 9:11, 20:3, 8, 13:14). The ways of the world are influenced by “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:2).

As Boyd reminds us, the history of the world is a history of violent conflicts. Boyd used Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as brilliant illustrations of fallen humans driven by passions they cannot control – desires for possessions, power, etc. These desires and passions lead to conflicts with other humans because other people feel just as strongly about their wants and desires. And while humans fight it out, Zeus sits on the mountain amused by it all.

When a worldly ruler elevates himself above all others, tears other people down, spreads lies, sows discord, seeks vengeance against his enemies, and treats others inhumanely, I imagine Satan laughing and saying, “well done, bad and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few dastardly things; I will put you in charge of many more.” And when Christians exchange the truth of the gospel for the seductive lure of political power, I imagine that Satan is overjoyed.

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

Jesus – John 8:44

Power corrupts…

Boyd says that whenever you see a person or group exercising power over other people, you are seeing a version of the kingdom of the world. Boyd calls power over other people the “power of the sword.” Humans use power over people to bend other people to their will and to inflict pain and suffering on those who defy or threaten their authority. The power of the sword is exercised in many ways – physical violence, restraint, coercion, threats, and denial of rights or access to resources.

Laws, enforced by the sword, control behavior but cannot change hearts.

Gregory A. Boyd

There is a saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power can be used for good but sometimes power changes people. As Chris Benderev wrote in the article When power goes to your head, it may shut out your heart, having power over people reduces our ability to empathize with them.

The kingdom of the world is nothing like the kingdom of God. It is a tribal “us versus them” kingdom – my race versus yours, my country versus yours, my religion versus yours, my political party versus yours. The world’s way is all about winning and having the upper hand. The world’s kingdom is a tit for tat kingdom. No insult or injury goes unanswered or unpunished.

The kingdom of God is radically different from the kingdom of this world. In the kingdom of God, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers. God’s kingdom is based on the power of the cross, that is, the power of redemption, the power of sacrificial living. Followers of Christ are to express power under people, humbly serving others. Followers of Christ are to love their enemies and to leave vengeance to God.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Philippians 2:3-5

I am among a growing chorus of believers who care so deeply and passionately about the gospel of Jesus Christ, we feel called to reclaim the name and share the real message of Christ. The hope of a nation does not depend on having a government based on biblical values. The hope of a nation lies in the redeeming power of Christ. He has the power to change people from the inside out! For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

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Father, may I not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of my mind and my heart so that I can be more like Christ, loving others as I love myself.

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy

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Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash