The Sin of Taking Sides
The US presidential election of 2016 is likely to be the most consequential of our generation. The distinctive personal characteristics of both major candidates have enticed many Christians to speak out against one or the other, effectively taking sides in an increasingly acrimonious campaign. The tendency for Christians to favor one party over another goes back several decades. A pattern in our Lord’s conduct calls this practice into question, and suggests we have a higher responsibility.
Our local fellowship is studying Matthew 19, and my attention was recently drawn to Matthew’s description of an attack on our Lord by the Pharisees:
Matt 19:3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
The verb “tempt” introduced the work of Satan in Matt 4:1-11, as he sought to lure the Lord into doing something contrary to the will of God. Four times in Matthew we read that the Pharisees “tempt” our Lord. Just how would the responses they were seeking have been sin on our Lord’s part?
The first instance is in 16:1,
Matt 16:1 The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven.
Their temptation directly echoes Satan’s temptation in 4:6, to use his powers to overwhelm people into submission rather than presenting God’s law and commanding them to repent. Throughout his ministry, our Lord used his miracles to minister to the needs of others, never to advance his own agenda. To do so would have been sinful pride on his part.
The second instance is our episode. The third is when they join with the Herodians in questioning him about the Roman poll tax in 22:16, while the fourth is the lawyer’s question in 22:35 about the greatest commandment in the law. The parallel with Satan’s temptation shows that the first temptation by the Pharisees is an attempt to lead the Lord into sin. How about the other three? The verb here translated “tempt” can simply mean to “test,” but the Lord’s use of the term in 22:18 shows that it describes something more sinister:
Matt 22:18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?
These three episodes, with another instance of Pharisaic behavior in John’s gospel, have something in common. In each case, the Pharisees are enticing the Lord to do something that would compromise his mission. His response is consistent in each case, and is an example to us.
Let’s start with 19:3.
Matt 19:3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
The Pharisees do not simply ask whether divorce is permissible, but what conditions might justify it. The phrase “for every cause” reflects a debate over divorce between two great rabbis in the first century, Hillel and Shammai. Hillel taught that a man could put away his wife for any cause, while Shammai taught that divorce was justified only in the case of extreme uncleanness, such as adultery.
The Pharisees are asking the Lord to align himself with one side or the other of this debate. They want him to take sides in their own partisan struggles. The temptation that they put before him is to ally himself with existing power structures, to approve one or condemn the other. Both Hillel and Shammai were respected among different factions of the Jews. Whichever one he favors, he will immediately increase his credibility with members of that party, but at the same time alienate himself from the other party.
The Lord refuses to choose between them. He will not seek the endorsement of one side, or set himself in opposition to the other. His response shows that he rejects the notion of divorce entirely. (The “exception clause” in v. 9 does not weaken this claim—see my book, Exccept for Fornication, Energion, 2011, for a thorough discussion.) He challenges both parties with the requirements of the kingdom of God. Consistent with his message throughout his earthly ministry, he calls them both to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17).
The question about the tax in 22:16 falls in the same category.
Mat 22:15 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. 16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. 17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? 18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?
When the Romans took over direct control of Judaea in AD 6, they imposed a poll tax, which was highly unpopular with the Jews. A minority party, which may be represented here by the Herodians, supported the Roman authority, but most opposed it. The Lord is being invited to take sides in this argument. If he opposes the tax, he will win the support of most of the people of Judaea, while if he endorses it, he will align himself with the considerable power of Rome. Of course, in each case, he will also alienate the other party. Again, the temptation is to align himself with an existing power structure. Again, he refuses to do so. He bears witness against both sides in the debate—the nationalists because they are willing to use the Roman coins that proclaim the deity of the emperor and bear his image, the pro-government party because they neglect the honor due to the God in whose image man is created.
The question about the greatest commandment of the law in 22:35-36 is probably another example of the same tactic.
Mat 22:35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, 36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
We know that this theological question was fervently discussed among the Jews. The question is again an invitation to the Lord to ally himself with one group or another (in this case, as in the question about divorce, along theological lines). Again, he refuses to seek the support of an existing power structure, but summarizes the entire Ten Commandments using two texts from the law.
A similar episode appears early in the gospel of John. In John 2, the Lord chases the moneychangers out of the temple. The temple precincts were under the control of the Sadducees, a rival faction to the Pharisees. These two parties were bitter rivals. They differed not only theologically (compare Acts 23:6-9), but also politically. The Pharisees were more aligned with the common people, while the Sadducees, the upper crust of society, were more sympathetic with the Romans. The Lord’s attack on the Sadducees’ franchise in the temple is surely the reason that in John 3, a prominent member of the Pharisees comes fawning to him.
Joh 3:1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: 2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
The Pharisees recognize his popularity and the power of his miracles. They approve of his attack against the temple market sponsored by the Sadducees, which suggest that he is sympathetic with their side, and they want him to take sides with them against the Sadducees. Again, the Lord refuses to ally himself with existing power structures. He immediately challenges Nicodemus with the need to be born again.
These episodes recall an instance in Joshua, just before the Israelites enter the promised land.
Jos 5:13 And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, there stood a man over against him with his sword drawn in his hand: and Joshua went unto him, and said unto him, Art thou for us, or for our adversaries? 14 And he said, Nay; but as captain of the host of the LORD am I now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and did worship, and said unto him, What saith my lord unto his servant? 15 And the captain of the LORD’s host said unto Joshua, Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy. And Joshua did so.
It is widely recognized that “the captain of the LORD’s host” in this passage is a pre-incarnate appearance of the one who would later come as Jesus of Nazareth. Joshua poses to him the same question that lies behind each of the episodes in Matthew and John that we have considered:
Art thou for us, or for our adversaries?
Joshua’s perspective, like that of the Pharisees, is that whenever the world defines a choice between power structures, everybody must choose sides. But the Captain’s answer rejects this assumption. Offered a choice between these two alternatives, he responds,
Nay; but as captain of the host of the LORD am I now come.
We might paraphrase his response, “The question, Joshua, is not whether I’m on your side, but whether you’re on my side.” We might think that the distinction between Israel and the Canaanites is so clear that alliance with Israel is synonymous with serving the Lord, but the case of Achan shows that there were those who fought for Israel and yet were not on the Lord’s side. What matters is that each Israelite love the Lord with all of his heart, soul, and abundance (Deut 6:4-5, see http://www.cyber-chapel.org/sermons/deut/notes/ShemaInTheNT.pdf).
As in the book of Joshua, so 1400 years later in the gospels, our Lord refuses to align himself with worldly power structures. Instead, he calls people to enter his kingdom, and conduct themselves as strangers and pilgrims in the earth. From this position, they, like he, must call all their fellows, of whatever persuasion, to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” When the Pharisees invite our Lord to choose between Hillel and Shammai, or between the nationalists and the pro-Roman party, or between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, they are indeed tempting him to sin, for the minute he aligns himself with one of these systems, he has denied the fundamental principle of his message: that the present world is evil (cf. Gal 1:4), controlled by the wicked one (cf. 1 John 5:19). No worldly system seeks God’s will. All are fundamentally opposed to his rule, and any favors they show to believers are for political motives. Our Lord calls all men and women to repent of their past devotion to sin, and transfer their allegiance to his kingdom.
These examples are important to us in the current political season. Satan would like us to align ourselves with the power structures of this world. But the example of our king, the Lord Jesus, is to bear witness against all of them. Hillel or Shammai, Pharisees or Sadducee, Zealot or Roman sympathizer, Republican or Democrat, all these human power structures are ultimately under Satan’s control. God is sovereign, and will accomplish his purposes, but we must not let ourselves be fooled into thinking that one option is somehow more Christian, more godly, than the other. It is seductive to think that we can harness the power of human movements to advance our Lord’s purposes, or that one side is more wicked than the other and deserves our special rebuke. But such a strategy compromises the independence of the message we are called to carry. We do not want the support of any candidate we might endorse, and we must not alienate lost sinners who happen to be committed to a candidate we might condemn. Our public position during times like these must be to direct people’s attention away from earthly power structures and flawed human leaders, and toward the true king, the Lord Jesus.
So what should believers do between now and November 8? I have two suggestions.
First, many people will want to engage us on the perplexing choice presented by the candidates of the two major parties, and the emerging alternative parties. If we follow our Lord’s example, we will deflect their attention from the political decision with which they are preoccupied, and toward the spiritual decision that really matters. We will try to capture the interest of those with whom we are speaking, and turn it to an opportunity to preach the gospel. An approach I’ve found helpful starts like this:
We do indeed face serious problems, as a nation and as a planet. But the only person who can really solve those problems is not on the ballot this November. The Bible tells us that the Lord Jesus is God’s anointed king, who will soon rule over all the earth, and the only hope for peace and stability is for us to repent of our sin, receive him as our Savior, and follow him as our Lord. Let me tell you about him.
If you’d like to read more about the gospel from the perspective of our Lord as the appointed king of the earth, you might enjoy the studies available at http://www.cyber-chapel.org/sermons/special/KingdomOfGod.
Second, how should believers vote this fall, or should they vote at all? I respect those who do not want to associate themselves in any way with the corrupt system in which we live. At the same time, Paul does encourage us to take what steps are open to us to increase our liberty (1 Cor 7:21), and Jeremiah instructed the captives in Babylon to
Jer 29:7 seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.
We should all remember the Scriptural injunction,
1Ti 2:1 I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; 2 For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.
We are commanded to pray for rulers who will discharge their responsibilities in such a way that we can practice godliness in “a quiet and peaceable life.” Let us pray that God would raise up rulers who will faithfully discharge the duty of the civil magistrate “to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Rom 13:4). If God gives us liberty to vote, let us make our decisions, not on any illusions about which party is more “pro-Christian,” but guided by a clear understanding of the God-given responsibilities of civil government and who we believe will best discharge those responsibilities. But we must not confuse our personal privilege at the polls with our public responsibility. We should not campaign for or against any of the candidates currently running for office, but for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Gal 6:14 God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.