The Politics of Jesus

Nilay Saiya September/October 2022

Beyond Transformation and Isolation

How should Christians respond to the spate of terrible events that have shaken American society to its core over the past two years: the Capitol insurrection, multiple police killings of African Americans, sky-high inflation, escalating gun violence, the increasing boldness of White supremacists, political upheaval, a global pandemic, and deeply rooted social division, to say nothing of the ongoing opioid epidemic, endemic poverty and inequality, and the worsening effects of climate change? 

Christians have generally sought to address social problems in one of two ways. The first involves the transformation of a country’s culture and politics. If the root cause of America’s troubles is its abandoning God, then the solution is taking the country back for Him. In the aftermath of the Uvalde school massacre, for example, some Christians blamed the attack on America kicking God out of the public square. Texas congressional representative Louie Gohmert implied that mass killings were the result of removing prayer from public schools.1 Such folks are fond of prescribing a tonic of repentance and renewal for the ills that afflict America today, quoting 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” 

Those holding this view call on Christians to redeem and transform—and ultimately control—their political communities for the glory of God.2 Because God rules over the whole world, the church must work to manifest this lordship in every area of life, including politics. Christians thus have a responsibility to bring “Christian values” to bear in all areas of life and to engage the world in all its dimensions, including the economic, social, and political arenas by advocating for just laws and policies and developing and ordering social life. Transformationalists thus urge Christians to seek positions of power within the state. By seeking to improve the quality of government and bring cultural mores more in line with Christian principles, Christians will let the light of the gospel shine ever more brightly in a fallen world and advance God’s creative and redemptive purposes for it. In this way, they are salt and light.

Perilous Power

Christian transformationalism, however, suffers from a number of problems. For one, the New Testament texts that directly address the subject of civil government uphold the division between the sacred and the secular, a separation that can be traced to none other than Jesus Himself, who, according to Matthew’s Gospel, commanded His listeners to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21, NIV). In like manner, the apostles Paul and Peter distinguished the authority of the state from the responsibility of the Christian, upholding the nonconformist identity of the Christian as radically distinct from the powers of the world. 

A second problem arising from the transformationalist view is that Scripture consistently ascribes functional dominion over the kingdoms of the earth to “principalities and powers” (even if God is the ultimate Sovereign of all of life and the time of the powers is circumscribed). While Scripture affirms the foundational purpose of the civil authorities to secure justice and restrain evil, it also consistently reveals their own injustice and brings them under divine judgment. John the evangelist clearly conveys this view to his readers in writing “that the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:17, NIV). In the book of Revelation, John portrays political power in satanic terms, associating the rule of temporal orders with “the angel of the Abyss,” “Abaddon,” “Apollyon,” “the great dragon,” “the ancient serpent,” and “the devil,” who deceives the nations and leads them astray. When Satan tempted Jesus with the prospect of ruling “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (Matthew 4:8, NIV) in exchange for his worship, Jesus bluntly rejected the offer. However, He did not dispute Satan’s claim to dominion over the world. When Christians seek to transform the world through power and privilege, they fall prey to the very temptation of Satan that Jesus rejected in the wilderness. 

A third problem with the transformationalist view concerns its distorted understanding of salvation and redemption. Trans­formation­al­ists believe that the Christ event resulted in the redemption of the entire world, including its political orders. To be sure, the New Testament speaks of the work of Christ in wholistic and cosmic terms, but this does not mean that each part of the present world will be redeemed in the new creation. Rather, the New Testament authors speak of people, not political orders, as being the recipients of God’s grace and of the church as the only present institution that God redeems. Scripture time and again emphasizes the provisional and penultimate nature of political authority, likening the nations to a “drop from a bucket” and “dust on the scales.” Only the kingdom of Christ endures forever. This understanding of salvation suggests that Christians should eschew attempts to transform political institutions in a way that reflects the character of God in the misguided belief that these institutions will carry over into the new creation.

There are practical reasons, too, that Christians should reject the transformationalist paradigm. One is that when transformationalist theologies become wedded to a quest for political privilege and the national identity of states, they have produced decidedly ungodly societal outcomes. For example, Christianity becoming entangled with political power has led to numerous situations in which world leaders have sought the backing of Christian authorities to support their abuses of power. Examples abound: the Catholic Church’s support for the Argentine government’s Dirty War; the backing of the murderous regime of Guatemala’s Pentecostal dictator Rios Montt by American Christians; the church’s complicity in the Rwandan genocide; the brutal South African system of apartheid supported by the Dutch Reformed Church; and the Russian Orthodox Church’s sanction for Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. And this smattering of examples comes from just the past 40 years. Tragically, the church itself has not only acquiesced to but also participated in this violence when it has allied with these regimes.

Second, not only has the Christian quest for political power had devastating political and social outcomes, but it has also had a profoundly negative effect on the church itself. My analysis of global Christianity shows that as Christianity’s entanglement with the state increases, the number of Christians declines significantly.3 This relationship holds even when accounting for other factors that might be driving Christian growth rates, such as overall demographic trends. Christians attempting to transform their political systems become distracted from their missions as they become engrossed in the things of Caesar rather than in the things of God. This “paradox of privilege” can be clearly seen in the countries of Europe, where Christianity once ruled by the sword and was deeply intertwined with the state. Many of the resplendent cathedrals of Christendom have been transformed into tourist sites or remain empty; they powerfully capture the decaying prestige of Christianity in Europe today. The same pattern has occurred, albeit much later, in the United States, where the percentage of the population identifying as Christian has declined precipitously over the past two decades. American Christian decline has been fueled, in large part, by the politicization of Christianity.

An Inward Turn

Some Christians, recognizing the dangers of transformationalism, have opted for the opposite strategy: to isolate themselves from the world. Isolationists, in contrast to transformationalists,  recommend that the church should remain separated from public life in order to keep itself pure from the corrupting influence of the world. This perspective emphasizes individual salvation, evangelism, holy living, and the life hereafter. Spiritual life is a private, inward pursuit that has little to do with public affairs. The world is seen as a sinking ship beyond hope, and the church as a lifeboat whose goal is to rescue as many people from the doomed ship as possible before the world is literally destroyed at the end of history. Christians, therefore, do not have a stake in the ordering of life in the nation-state. In an effort to extricate themselves from the affairs of the world in order to pursue lives of spiritual purity, certain Christian sects throughout history retreated into inwardness and developed literally separated and self-sufficient communities outside normal social structures in which they could live in accordance with their convictions without subjecting themselves to the corruption of the world. A contemporary incarnation of Christian isolation comes in the form of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option”—the belief that Christians living in a post-Christian age need to preserve their faith and common morality by segregating themselves from the wider society as did the monastic orders of old.4

When taken to the extreme, however, a theology espousing isolation risks passivity, cultural indifference, and abrogation of the Christian responsibility to bear witness on social issues of justice and peace—matters central to the gospel message. Indeed, the ministry of Jesus was wholly relevant to the politics and society of His day. Jesus was not indifferent to social realities, but displayed an unrelenting commitment to the health and wholeness of all those He encountered. Not only did He forgive sins and preach the coming of the kingdom of God, but He also healed people of their physical afflictions. Both were spiritual expressions of compassion and love. Through His healing ministry, Jesus demonstrated the power of the gospel to transform lives, and established a model for the church to emulate that was not divorced from lived reality. In this way He began to fulfill the messianic promise of the kingdom of God. Consequently, Christian isolation cannot be reconciled with the example of Christ.

Witness Bearers

In my new book, The Global Politics of Jesus: A Christian Case for Church-State Separation,5 I delineate a third way by which Christians should engage with the world that surrounds them. I call this approach prophetic witness. As depicted in the Bible, the prophets were countercultural radicals who lambasted the values of the surrounding culture and mourned the tendency of the holy people of God to seek accommodation with the world. The prophets are also portrayed as thorns in the flesh of those in power, and, conversely, kings as forces of persecution who fear prophets and put them to death. The Hebrew prophets before Jesus bore witness to those in positions of power on behalf of the downtrodden. 

In contrast to transformationalism, prophets do not seek power. Instead, the practice of prophetic witness requires the church to maintain a position of distance from the state and bear witness against the injustices committed by the state, thus often inviting retaliation from the state. It understands the church to be an alternative polity that has its own unique way of addressing social problems. In contrast to isolationism, prophetic witness demands social engagement on the part of the church, especially on behalf of those on the margins of society. 

The belief that Christians must choose between transforming politics or living detached from the world represents a false dichotomy between utopianism and pessimism. Christ has called His followers to form an alternative political community that lives in contradiction to the world, yet not aloof from it—to be in the world but not of it. Christians follow in the example of Christ when they stand against injustice by modeling in the life of the church a different reality, one that rejects both the quest for political power and withdrawal from the world. When Christians have remained engaged with the world yet retained their distance from the heights of power, they have maintained their moral credibility and have been empowered to transform lives around the world and contribute in their unique way to healthy societies and polities. 

1 Forbes Breaking News, “Louie Gohmert Implies Prayer Being Removed From Schools Related to School Shootings,” video, June 9, 2022,

2 Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); James W. Skillen, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

3 Nilay Saiya, “Proof That Political Privilege Is Harmful for Christianity,” Christianity Today, May 6, 2021,

4 Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017).

5 Nilay Saiya, The Global Politics of Jesus: A Christian Case for Church-State Separation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022).

Article Author: Nilay Saiya

Nilay Saiya is assistant professor of public policy and global affairs at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. His research into Christian privilege—“Paradoxes of Pluralism, Privilege, and Persecution: Explaining Christian Growth and Decline Worldwide”—was published earlier this year in the academic journal Sociology of Religion. Saiya is author of the book Weapon of Peace: How Religious Liberty Combats Terrorism (Cambridge University Press, 2018).