One of the factors that shapes how you understand Jesus’ words in the Gospels is recognising when he is speaking to his disciples, and when he is not. This is particularly significant for how Jesus’ words are employed in the service of politics and economics.
In his essay, ‘Christian Principles and Social Relationships’, in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, the Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, notes quite simply that Jesus doesn’t do politics. He ‘leaves all political and social circumstances and relationships for what they are; he never intervenes in any of this, either by word or action’ (130). Despite what many anticipated the Messiah to be and do, Jesus has no revolutionary inclination, instead demonstrating an acceptance of the established order. Rather, Bavinck writes, Jesus’ purpose was to come ‘into the world to save his people from their sins, to serve and to give his soul as a ransom for many’ (131). This has a significant bearing on how we understand Jesus’ teaching:
In teaching his disciples, Jesus wants to raise their standard of judgement to this level. To understand his teaching, we must note before all else that Jesus never developed a political or social agenda…it is not a lesson in politics or economy, no agenda of principles or of action. Christ’s teaching is totally of a religious-moral nature; it is not intended for the state, for society, but is directed to his disciples and indicates how they are to conduct themselves in their private lives (131-132).
As a case in point, Bavinck points to the Sermon on the Mount, which is regularly employed by those who wish to co-opt Jesus for political causes. Jesus here does not address social concerns; his teaching instead is ‘dominated completely by the contrast between the righteousness that God requires and that which the Pharisees in Jesus’ day demanded’ (132). This is why it is so important to recognise when Jesus’ is specifically teaching his disciples, because he never gives them a ‘direct command to become involved socially or politically’. Rather, in his instruction of his disciples, ‘the so-called passive virtues of self-denial and long-suffering, of humility and love are so prominent’ (132). And that is because ‘the true following of Christ…is found in the inner conversion of the heart’ (131). Jesus doesn’t teach his disciples how to be better citizens in this world. He teaches them how to live the new life that he brings.
Bavinck’s concern is to avoid conflating any sort of political or societal order with the kingdom of God. This is a temptation when the imposition of a new order is seen as an outworking of the gospel and the teaching and work of Christ. But Jesus is perfectly clear: ‘The only way to enter the kingdom of heaven, which is available to all, is by way of regeneration, an inner change, faith, conversion. No nationality, no gender, no social standing, no class, no wealth or poverty, no freedom or slavery has any preferences here’ (140).
That said, ‘it is a different question…whether one can learn something from [Jesus’] teaching for the organisation of state and society’ (131). And while that is not the concern of his essay, Bavinck is clear that there are certainly things Jesus taught that can be brought to bear on the structures of society. But the point is that the gospel does not give us a new political order; instead, it effects change in a different way:
Although the gospel left everything unchanged in the natural relationships, it nevertheless preached a principle so deep and rich and extraordinarily powerful that is was bound to exert a reforming influence on all earthly circumstances. [But] the gospel has to be understood clearly. It must be accepted the way it presents itself without turning it into a political or social system, and then it will reveal its permeating power (140).
Bavinck certainly expects that the gospel will have an influence on society (that, incidentally, is the focus of a recent book by Nick Spencer, of Theos Think Tank), and the fact that he was a key part of institutions like universities, an academy of arts and sciences, and a member of the Dutch parliament testifies to this. But he is clear that the gospel itself is not about implementing tax laws that favour the poor or creating welfare states or raising standards of living or, indeed, any sort of political revolution. Rather,
The gospel is exclusively directed to the redemption from sin…the gospel shuns every revolution… The gospel, on the other hand, always works reformationally. It creates the greatest reformation by setting people free from guilt, renewing the heart, and thus in principle restoring the right relationship of man to God. And so from this centre it influences all earthly relationships in a reforming and renewing way… Precisely because the gospel only opposes sin, it opposes it always and everywhere in the heart and the head, in the eye and in the hand, in family and society, in science and art, in government and subjects, in rich and poor, for all sin is unrighteousness, trespassing of God’s law, and corruption of nature. But by liberating all social circumstances and relationships from sin, the gospel tries to restore them all according to the will of God and make them fulfil their own nature (142-143).
There is much more to say here, not least about the concept of sphere sovereignty, of which Bavinck is a major proponent. But for now, it is important to note that Bavinck is not advocating the idea that a reformation of society is simply about converting people, as some evangelicals are wont to suggest, in reaction to those who make Jesus to identify with a modern political system. Rather, this is simply about recognising the distinction between the content of the gospel, and the implications of the gospel.
‘The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost,’ Jesus says (Luke 19:10). That is what the gospel is all about. But the implications of that gospel stretch much further, as renewed people set to work renewing all that has been broken by sin in the various places and institutions to which they are called.