By Jacob Riggs
In the early 1960s it became illegal for public schools to sponsor prayer. In 1980, the Supreme Court struck down a Kentucky law requiring every public school to display a copy of the Ten Commandments. I could mention many more examples that show the same thing: Christianity in the United States has moved from mainstream to marginalized. It used to be financially beneficial to display a fish sticker in the window of businesses. I doubt that decision is as fiscally wise today.
My perception is that American Christendom’s reaction has mainly been anger. “You’re ruining our country!” “Let’s make America great again!” A practical response has been a renewed fervency in political engagement: a call for evangelicals to vote more, contact our congressmen, share Fox News video clips on social media, picket, give more to conservative politicians. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s generally not working.
It’s good to engage our culture by any means possible to work for the good of society and human flourishing. I vote in every election and try to do so in an educated way. I have contacted my local representative in congress on a few occasions to urge him or her to vote a certain way on a particular bill. I pastor a church where we gladly support a local pregnancy center that helps save the lives of unborn babies. I will go to jail before I “marry” two people of the same sex. These are good behaviors to follow.
At the same time, I know these actions are not the real fight.
The church has always struggled to discern the difference between building Christ’s kingdom and using Christ to build her own kingdom. It goes all the way back to one of the foundational stones of the church—Peter. When Malchus approached Christ in the garden of Gethsemane to help take Him into custody, Peter’s unsheathing revealed something very important: he did not understand how the kingdom of God was to be built.
Peter’s spirit lives on in you and me. When we see other kingdoms supposedly gain ground on the kingdom of Christ, we panic, just like Peter did. Here’s what I mean: “Gay marriage” is legalized and our primary, knee-jerk reaction is to make sure our congresswoman who agrees with it knows we will do everything in our power to make sure she is not re-elected. The media celebrates a man who denies the identity of his chromosomes and we search intently for Sodom’s brimstone. Planned Parenthood murders people and sends their body parts across the country for “research” and our hearts lead us to storm Washington. A movie most evangelicals are proud of is number one at the box office, and we’re filled with a little bit of hope. We really like our swords.
The Kingdom a Sword Makes
If you want to build the kingdom of Christ the way Peter tried, get ready to shed some blood. Those who do not yield must be broken. It matters not that people are made in God’s image and loved by their Creator. It matters that all people bow to our agenda and ideology no matter what.
On top of that, ignore the fact that many of those that would rather put up with our power than be killed by it are never truly changed. For them this is about fear and survival, not love and flourishing. There is no “glorify God by enjoying Him forever” here. There is only “be afraid of God and put up with Him as long as you can.” The sword-led kingdom might force people to fall in line, but it will never lead them to fall in love.
The Allure and Downfall of the Sword
There’s a reason swords are so often used to build kingdoms—they work! Kingdoms of the world expand rapidly if the sword is sharp enough and powerful enough. Caesar, Khan, Stalin, and Hitler are all examples of that. Combine religion with the sword and you get a potentially more expansive or passionate kingdom. Enter the Crusades or jihad.
The biggest problem with building your kingdom with a sword is that your kingdom will eventually die by the sword. Eventually there will be a kingdom whose sword dwarfs yours. Jesus said it Himself that night when He urged the rest of His disciples to respond differently than Peter: “If you live by the sword, you’ll die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). If you build your kingdom by legislating it, your kingdom will die from legislation as well. An American Christendom that exists by its legality is a Christendom that will only exist as long as it has enough votes.
When Losing Looks Like Winning
Satan offered Christ his entire kingdom if Jesus would just bow down to him. That day the enemy showed some of his cards that he’s still trying to play today: he’ll give you whatever you want if it means he’s still in charge.
If Satan realized Christ would rise from the dead, he would have been cheering for Peter when he pulled out his sword at Gethsemane. He would have been happy for Peter to not only remove Malchus’ ear, but to kill Caesar. Satan would have even been thrilled for the church to storm Rome if it meant Christ didn’t storm Golgotha. As Russell Moore says, Satan is happy if America holds to conservative values if it doesn’t lead to a bloody cross and an empty tomb.
If the Ten Commandments are in every schoolroom in America, but the law of God is not written on the hearts of Americans, Satan wins. If all elementary students in our country have the Lord’s Prayer on their lips but not in their hearts, Satan wins. If every marriage in the United States is between one man and one woman while none of those people go to the marriage supper of the Lamb, Satan wins.
The Real Kingdom
In the real kingdom the fight isn’t against Planned Parenthood, Barack Obama, Disney, or the ethics professor at your local state college. There’s too much passing-away flesh and blood there to worry us. The real fight is against the one who has blinded the eyes of unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel of Christ. He has the world under his spell as they profess to be wise yet prove themselves foolish.
Legislation is good, but it generally reveals instead of transforms. It shows what we value instead of shapes what we value. That’s why it can never build the real kingdom—the kingdom of Christ. God has always been after the hearts of people. He revealed to Israel that they could circumcise every male in their nation, but what He was really after was a circumcised heart (Deuteronomy 30:6; Romans 2:29). It’s a changed heart that results in a changed life. The real kingdom isn’t built by legislation, but by regeneration; not through fists raised up, but hands stretched out.
Does this mean we shouldn’t care about who is in the White House or whether or not we’re sued for refusing to participate in what the Bible calls sin? No, we should care. A citizen of Christ’s kingdom is concerned about the good of all people (not just their spiritual good), and politics impacts people. But a citizen of Christ’s kingdom isn’t faltered or disheartened by poor decisions of those sitting on the Supreme Court bench because he or she knows the King of Kings sitting on the throne. A citizen of Christ’s kingdom should work for religious liberty because it’s good for society. But when a citizen of this kingdom is crucified for doing so, it’s not a threat but an opportunity—a confirmation that the Spirit of Christ truly does rest in the believer. Being treated like Christ was treated is evidence we truly know Him.
Do you want to build the kingdom of God? Put your sword in its sheath and pick up a towel. Let the thing that increases your heart rate not be the vitriol you hear coming out of your enemy’s mouth, but the dirt you see caked on his or her feet. If you really want to expand the kingdom of Christ, tell the truth and work for the good of society, and if someone crucifies you for it, rejoice. God has considered you worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.
Take heart, friend. It may appear that the kingdom of Christ is essentially insignificant here on earth (like a mustard seed). But never forget that it’s growing—right now—in the hearts of people across the world through the gospel, as they are transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. One day, this kingdom will be the only kingdom. After all, the enemy’s head has already been crushed, and the King is already on His glorious throne.
Jacob Riggs is the Pastor of Central Oaks Community Church in Royal Oak, Michigan and the creator and former editor of The Brink magazine. He is husband to Lynsey and Dad to Caroline.