Getting Christ out of Caesar’s Shadow: A Call to the Confessing Church
“The church is: holy believers and ‘the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd.’” (SA 12:2)
This statement, drawn from the Lutheran Confessions, seems innocuous; the sort of thing one might find placarded under effeminate pictures of Jesus on churches’ nursery walls. Perfectly safe, non-threatening, and tame. If we took it seriously we would find it revolutionary; the sort of thing that could profoundly transform the Church and severely rattle world powers. It has the potential to expose the American dream as an anemic and idolatrous substitute for the Kingdom of God, while simultaneously calling the Church to repent for being content to let Christ be concealed beneath Caesar’s shadow. Those are radical words!
The Church Is Holy Believers in Jesus
Consider what is being said. The confession first states who the Church is: the Church is holy believers in Jesus. Scripture defines holy believers as those washed by the Word (Ephesians 5:26), those sanctified by the Holy Spirit’s working through the Word (1 Corinthians 1:2), and those baptized into Christ the enfleshed Word (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27; 1 Corinthians 12:13). This is the revolutionary work of God, the work that recreates us. He gives us a new identity, one that transcends cultures, countries, and political parties. We are not first German or American or Republican or fill-in-the-blank; we are first the holy people of God, the people God has called out of the world and claimed as His own. God says to us, “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3) and “you are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19), and “you were ransomed… with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18–19). Through God’s working in Word and Water (Baptism), we are re-identified, given a new, defining identity.
Further, our allegiances are realigned. We are not first indebted to Caesar or his state or his army (although we may rightly honor and participate in these things); we are first indebted to Christ and aligned with His Church. Christ is our master; He owns us. Because of this our faith is not in Caesar’s might, mandates, or missiles; our faith is in the Lord Jesus Christ who made the earth and heavens, rules the nations, and claims us as His own. Caesar will not and cannot save world; that work can only be done by Christ and the Gospel He has placed in His Church. This means that the great gift the Church has to offer the world is not more legislation, enhanced social programs, or lobbyists in Washington (although Christians may rightly support such efforts). The great gift the Church has for the world is Christ and His Gospel. That’s the message that needs to echo from the Church’s pulpit.
Our faith is not in Caesar’s might, mandates, or missiles; our faith is in the Lord Jesus Christ who made the earth and heavens, rules the nations, and claims us as His own.
Further, we have no promise that America or the American way of life will endure. Countries collapse. Cultures die. Political parties rise and fall. The Church endures, and nothing, not even the gates of hell, will prevail against it. The Church is our home and our eternal community. And because of this we should consider treason to country, serious though it be, a lesser evil than blasphemy against Christ and neglect of Christ’s Church. Anything less keeps Christ in Caesar’s shadow.
The Church Hears the Voice of Jesus
In addition to confessing who the Church is, our confessional statement declares what the Church does: the Church hears the voice of Jesus. The Church is believers made holy by God’s working in Christ through the Spirit, and the Church gathers around the Word of Jesus. That Word shapes and forms disciples of Jesus. And this is how the Church serves the world; it makes disciples of Jesus.
Further, that Word exposes the American dream as inadequate and insufficient because that Word announces the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Our Savior preached, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Christ’s Kingdom shows the American dream to be too small. It is a weak substitute for the eternal joys of the Kingdom of God. The Church’s great hope isn’t living wages, affordable education, renewable energy, and national security (although these may be fine cultural objectives). The Church’s great goal is not electing a certain politician or president (although these may be worthy aims). The Church’s great hope is Jesus Christ and His present and coming Kingdom, and we would stake our life on this great hope a thousand times before we would settle for something less.
The Church’s great hope is Jesus Christ and His present and coming Kingdom, and we would stake our life on this great hope a thousand times before we would settle for something less.
This is especially important to remember just after a super-charged voting year. Yes, Christians should vote. Yes, Christians should study candidates and their positions on the issues. Yes, Christians should exercise their faith in the public square. But we must guard against Caesar’s ceaseless attempts to subdue Christ’s Church to do his will, to preach his message, and to elevate his Kingdom above Christ’s. We must not let politicians, in an attempt to woo the Church, co-opt Scripture and the Church into Caesar’s service.
As a case in point, Americans occasionally will hear political candidates claim 2 Chronicles 7:14 as God’s endorsement for their candidacy: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” In so doing, a candidate inserts America into the text and dismissed God’s Old Testament Church from the promises God made to them. Further, the candidate equates a vote for himself with the promise of healing and forgiveness. Even more, he has equated Caesar’s kingdom with Christ’s. This forces Christ to stand in Caesar’s shadow and the Church into Caesar’s service.
Other candidates have suggested that a vote for them would help restore a “Christian nation,” as if the Church’s goal was simply to have people live by Christian principles without becoming disciples of Jesus through the transforming Gospel of Jesus. Still others have kidnapped Biblical texts addressed to the Church and claimed them for Caesar, claiming that Caesar will bring the peace Scripture promises and that Caesar will bring the justice Scripture promises. But these words mean nothing to the Church apart from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Caesar is trying to use Christ’s words without Christ.
If we allow Caesar to replace Christ’s kingdom with His, we will watch Caesar gut Jesus’ cross and resurrection out of the Gospel and fill it with an “improved society.” Improved societies are noble things, but Jesus didn’t call the Church simply to improve society (to make it a little less dangerous, a little less dirty, a little less uncomfortable). These are certainly things responsible citizens should strive for, but the Church has been called to hear Christ’s voice, His voice which announces the present and coming Kingdom of God, and to make disciples of Jesus through the proclamation of the Gospel. It’s the Gospel that makes the Church the Church, and that Gospel cannot be substituted for any initiative of Caesar, no matter how culturally beneficial.
The Church must remember that Caesar knows nothing of the ways of the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom, His reign, moves the Church to love her enemies, serve the poor, keep her promises, willingly suffer for righteousness’ sake, rejoice with the truth, and to be a living testimony to the remarkable community-making power of God. God in Christ is forming a community out of strangers, and this community transcends all boundaries and loyalties. Caesar may speak of such things, but he must forcibly tax his subjects to accomplish them. The Church joyfully and freely gives out of love for Christ and neighbor.
The Church must remember that Caesar is not God; Jesus is. Caesar doesn’t save; Jesus does. Caesar doesn’t grant our daily bread; Jesus does. Caesar cannot save the world; Jesus can. And Caesar didn’t die so that we might live; Jesus did. Caesar has his place, but it is not before Christ. Christ does not belong in Caesar’s shadow and it’s time the confessing Church said as much.
Pastor Jonathan Conner of Zion Lutheran Church in Manning, Iowa, serves as Vice President of The Hausvater Project.