Is the message of the gospel and the Kingdom inherently political messages? If so, what does that mean? How is the Christian message both politically and culturally subversive and submissive to government at the same time? What does it mean for the church to be subversive in today’s polarized culture? We’ll answer these questions and more with our guest Patrick Schreiner, and his new book, Political Gospel: Public Witness in a Politically Crazy World.

Patrick Schreiner is the Director of the Residency PhD program and Associate Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Western Seminary in Portland Oregon (2014–20). He is the author of numerous books, including The Mission of the Triune God: A Theology of Acts (Crossway), The Body of Jesus: A Spatial Analysis of the Kingdom in Matthew (T&T Clark), The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross (Crossway), Matthew, Disciple and Scribe: The First Gospel and Its Portrait of Jesus (Baker).

Episode Transcript

Scott: Is the message of the gospel and the kingdom inherently a political message? If so, what does that mean? What does it mean for the church to be subversive in today's polarized culture? How is the Christian message, both political and culturally subversive, and submissive to government at the same time? We’ll answer these questions and more with our guest Patrick Schreiner and his new book entitled The Political Gospel. I'm your host, Scott Rae.

Sean: And I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell.

Scott: This is Think Biblically from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Patrick, welcome, it's great to have you with us.

Patrick: Good to be with you guys. I'm looking forward to the conversation.

Scott: So tell us what motivated you to write on this subject, particularly at this time.

Patrick: Yeah, so I started researching this book when it felt like we were in a lot of political turmoil. You know, you had racial tension in the U.S., Donald Trump was elected, and I think a lot of people were looking at the church and just seeing a lot of division within the church around how to speak about these issues. And I heard from a lot of pastors, honestly, that people were leaving their church because of politics. They either weren't political enough or they were too political. And it came ultimately down to, you know, the concept of political discipleship and what I mean by that is simply trying to follow Jesus in every part of our life, including how we think through secular governments. And so I looked around and there's a ton of good books on politics out there, but not as many, you know, my training is in New Testament studies, studying the Scriptures and not as many deal with really the New Testament or Old Testament texts in terms of the political lives of Jesus, Paul, the church itself. And I think kind of the easiest way into this conversation for Christians is to go to the Scriptures, but I also felt like we had blinders on in terms of how we read the Scriptures, that we don't see the political reality. And so really I wanted to help the church, help pastors think through political discipleship, and to do that, I wanted to take off kind of those blinders of, I feel like we've read the Scriptures in one way. And I said, well, let's look at it from this angle as well. Another way to put this is, you know, we go to Romans 13 often to think about political discipleship when Paul talks about submitting to governing authorities. But I hope this book shows there's just a lot more in the Scriptures than Romans 13. Romans 13 is important, very important. I deal with it, but there's a lot more than that. And so I want to open people's eyes to the wealth of resources we have within the Scriptures themselves.

Sean: So tell us what you mean by the term political gospel. Again, of course, the title of your book and how you define politics.

Patrick: Yeah, so political, I'm using more of the ancient way of using the term because when people saw the title, a lot of them were like, are you arguing for partisanship?

Sean: [Laughs]

Patrick: Specifically what I'm not doing, if you read through the book, I'm not arguing for partisanship. Political goes back to the Greek word polis, which just means city. And so political honestly just means the organization of a city, the activities associated with the organization and governance of a people. So it has to do with who has the right to rule and govern us. How do we order our society? What happens in the public domain? And so really, when I say political gospel, I'm saying our faith is a public reality. And the way I set it up was, you know, often we think of our faith either as a private thing, an individualistic thing, or a partisan reality. So it was hard for me because I feel like that the, at least people in the American church, kind of fall off on one of those two sides of the horse. But I was trying to carve somewhat of that third way and say it's truly political. It's not merely private or individualistic, and it's not necessarily partisan either. Rather, the gospel message itself makes claims about who has the right to rule our life and how we’re to order ourselves. And so that's what I mean, feel free to ask questions on that, but that's what I mean by political. I mean more of the ancient way of using the word.

Scott: Yeah, maybe it may be helpful just really briefly to explain, you have a section in the book that explains what you don't mean by the term political gospel. Maybe just spell out a couple of those things.

Patrick: Yeah, so again, if you go back to kind of that partisan reality, I don't mean combining one's faith with one political party. I think Christianity transcends any political party, which sometimes it's scary to people. It's like, what do you mean by that? Does that mean we can't vote? No, that's not what I'm saying. Rather, what I'm saying is Christians, by the nature of what the Gospel and the Scriptures teach us, will be critical of every governing system in some ways, because no governing system is going to completely represent the kingdom of God. So while we can, it's okay to be aligned with a political party, to solely align yourself with a political party and think that that is an embodiment of the kingdom of God is going too far. And so we need to be careful with, number one, not critiquing people for having some sort of political loyalty. I think that's okay. I talked to a lot of people who work in the governing system and they're like, are you saying we can't work for Democrats or Republicans? No, that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is as a Christian, you need to recognize that they are not, they are not the ones to bring in the kingdom of God. Rather, Jesus will do that. And really our primary political identity, this is jumping ahead, but our primary political identity is found within the people of God, within the church. And then the other thing I don't mean by political is that also like a lot of people start to think of the conversation around Christian nationalism. And so I also don't mean that we are to make the rule of God, the law of the land in a holistic sense. And so when you hear political gospel, it's like, "Oh, are you saying like, we should take over the government? We should have God's law rule our land." No, that's actually not what I'm saying. We've seen how that's gone historically. I know there's some debate about that, but I don't think that's the way to go forward. It doesn't seem like Jesus, nor the early church, was really that interested in unseating Caesar and putting their own political rulers in place. Jesus' mission and vocation seemed to be very different than that. When He stood before Pilate or Rome or the Sanhedrin, you know, He didn't seem interested in getting them out of power and neither did Paul. And so I don't mean those things by political. I mean, it is a public, truly a public reality.

Sean: I think you should do this, and you do, but it's kind of amazing how much time you've got to spend qualifying what you don't mean, which shows the amount of confusion we have about the intersection of politics and the Gospel today, and how much we've probably misplaced our allegiances. So those definitions are really helpful. Now one of the ways you phrase this, I think, as creative is that people will leave their church over politics more than they will leave their politics for the church. Tell us what conclusions you draw from that.

Patrick: Yeah, you know, I think politics, as especially people have become less religious, if you're just looking at the kind of research across American life for the last 50 years or so, As people have become less religious, you know, we've had to find how we identify ourselves. And often, not solely, but often, people will now find their identity in a political party. And so we often see that mindset seep into the church to where the political party or a political party becomes so much a part of our identity that if someone critiques that system or those governing authorities, we view that as a personal insult or a personal attack on our faith. And so what happens is politics has become the new religion. And often we view these ruling authorities as kind of our new priests. And really my book is trying to step in here and say, well, wait, Jesus came and He declared himself to be king. He declared himself, also He acted as a priest and that this is our primary identity. Every other identity or however you want to describe that must be secondary. And so when I heard those stories from pastors about people leaving the church because it was either too political or not political enough, I think that was, and I experienced that even in our own church, I think that was the signal for me that, okay, this has become too much of an identity marker for Christians and the reality that it's very hard from my viewpoint is obviously limited, but it seems to be hard to find a church where you have people on different political spectrums worshiping together. So how much are we dividing over this issue, which means that we are making it a primary category by which we identify ourselves, and I don't want to see that division in the church continue. Now, I think there's room to have good debates about voting for candidates and issues and where certain political parties are going. I'm not denying that. I'm really trying to set the foundation for how to think about these things from the Scriptures. I don't get a lot into issues such as even abortion or immigration, or do we vote in a way where, well, this is the least worst option? I don't even get into those sort of things. Rather, I'm trying to frame how we think from the Scriptures using Jesus, Paul, and the early church as kind of our marching orders here.

Scott: I think, yeah, the way you've approached this, I think is particularly helpful. It's a 35,000 foot level view, and it's very helpful without getting bogged down in the details. One of the things I think that's assumed in the book, you defend it in the book, but I think is unknown to a lot of people in our churches is how religion and politics, or as you say, the public dimension of faith were intertwined so closely in the first century. Can you explain a little bit more how that was so?

Patrick: Yeah, so if you even go back to the Old Testament, just the, the literature that most Christians know, when you, when you see Israel win, that was a sign that their God had won, like a battle, when they win a battle or they win a skirmish with another nation. But when they lose, you see that actually the other nation, like the Philistines and Dagon, they believe their God has won. So really in the first century and the ancient Near East, the division that we have kind of put between religion and politics didn't exist in the same way. And so one of the clear ways to kind of wrap your head around this is ask yourself, “Was Jesus a political figure or a religious figure?" And I think most of us would say, "Well, he's a religious figure, not a political figure." But I actually don't think that question would make any sense in Jesus' day. He would have looked at you and said, "What are you talking about?" Those two seers just didn't... They weren't separate seers. And I think we actually see that's the case because even though Jesus comes before the religious, we could call them religious leaders, even though I don't even know if that's the the greatest summary of who the Sanhedrin was and who the Sadducees were. He also comes before Pilate and they're asking him questions like, "Are you saying you're a king?" And so you could see like the religious and the political are intertwining. And so throughout the book, I'm going through a lot of the language that Jesus or Paul uses to show you we've kind of stuck them in this religious box, this spiritual box, but in Jesus' day, in the first century, these were fully political terms, which is exactly why Rome was nervous about Jesus. Exactly why Rome was nervous about Paul. I mean, I just finished doing a long commentary in Acts and people forget that Paul was in prison and under trial for basically the last four chapters of Acts, and why is he on trial if it's purely a religious message? Like why are they so concerned? Well, they're concerned about riots. They're concerned about Acts 17, I think is a classic text that I love to go to. When Paul declares that Jesus is the Messiah, those in Thessalonica say he has declared there is a new king that goes against the decrees of Caesar. And so very clearly they're interpreting it politically. And now I use politically because that's our framework, but again, religion and politics were not two separate things for them. And so really I want to show people through the New Testament that Paul and Jesus came with a very political message. Now we think, okay, well, what, what are the implications of that? Jesus also submitted himself to the Roman rulers. And so that's where you have to be careful. I feel like this conversation, you do have to have a lot of nuance. And really we have to have a lot of nuance in terms of how we interact with governing authorities in our, in our own political lives as Christians. And that's why this conversation is very difficult.

Sean: Patrick, you and I walked the same fall with our doctorates from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary together. And that's when we first met. And I mentioned that because my research at Southern was on the deaths of the apostles. And some have pushed back and said, "Well, they're not martyrs. It was political." And my response is, "You cannot separate the religious from the political in the first century." And that clearly has strong overlap with what you're arguing, how we approach this through the lens of the New Testament. It's so helpful. Now, you also insist that the term "Gospel" has strong political meaning. How does an idea, "Gospel," obviously depending on how we understand it, carry political connotations with it?

Patrick: Yeah, so a lot of these words that, as I said, we put in kind of religious or spiritual boxes in the first century had a lot of political overtones. And so I look at terms like gospel, euangelion in Greek, kingdom, faith, church, ecclesia. And what's interesting is when you dig into the literature around these terms, you begin to see that they're actually used both by Jewish authors and by Greco-Roman authors in a fully political way. And I think gospel is the best way to start because when we hear gospel, I mean, how many gospel centered resources and ministries do we have? I'm very thankful for that. But in the first century, the gospel was a message, a declaration of victory that most often was related to an ambassador, an envoy coming back from a battlefield and declaring the good news that their king or their nation had won the battle. Or it was used in relation to the birth of a new king who was going to bring good news. You know, I don't remember the details. This is kind of a funny example, but we have even in one, I think it's an inscription or piece of literature where they're actually, they're kind of playing around with the term gospel. The person comes back from the market and says, good news, the anchovies are back in the market. It's this joke because you're not supposed to use good news with anchovies. Like it doesn't match. The good news is specifically tied to political victory. Now that's really hard for us to wrap our minds around because we use Gospel in such a, the good news of Jesus’ death for our sins on the cross and His resurrection, which that's totally true, that's exactly how Jesus enacts His victory. But when Jesus comes on the scene and He says, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, repent and believe in the Gospel." All of those terms are very political. And I think immediately Rome's antenna is up and they're like, "Okay, who is this guy? And what is He actually saying?" Because ultimately they hang a sign above His head when he's crucified. This man declared He's the King of the Jews. They understood his gospel message was a declaration of victory. They understood His declaration of the kingdom of God is at hand is a fully political term. And again, when we think of kingdom, we think of kingdom as purely God's reign in our heart. But for Israel to think of the kingdom is to think of city walls and gates and food and gates that keep out their enemies and peace and so forth and so on. And I don't think we need to strip kingdom of its very earthy and political meaning when Jesus comes on the scene and declares the kingdom of God is at hand, that is a fully political message. Now at the very same time, and this is probably the follow-up question that needs to happen, He redefines the politics itself. And so when He comes before the ruling authorities, they look at Him and they say, "This guy's innocent." That's exactly what Pilate says.

Sean: Right

Patrick: So how can Jesus's message both be political and they declare Him innocent? Well, it's because it's a radically different politic than they expected. They can't even recognize the politic that He brings in.

Scott: So Patrick, how do you account for the notion that when Jesus taught that his kingdom is not of this world? Yeah, that's a great question, Scott. I appreciate you asking that. And then I went to that text and I thought, wait, how do I understand this based on kind of what I'm presenting? Now, when Jesus says that in John, we have to ask, what does that mean that He says my kingdom is not of this world? Now, just to get a little Greek and nerdy with you, "of" is a genitive, right? And so what sort of genitive…

Scott: I think our listeners need to know, hang in there for the next 30 seconds.

Patrick: That's right. What sort of genitive is this? Well, I interpret it as a source genitive. The kingdom is not from this world. In other words, He's the king of heaven who is bringing heaven down to earth. What He's not saying is that I'm not bringing a message of a kingdom. That doesn't make any sense. He's saying the nature of His kingdom and the means by which He will bring it. Actually, if you look at the next verses, what does He say? If my kingdom was of this world, I would have formed an army, but look at my army. It's these 12 wimpy disciples. Like they don't have swords or anything. I actually just told Peter to put away his sword in the garden. And so when He says my kingdom is not of this world, He's showing them the nature and the means by which my kingdom comes is not by the sword and not by the spear. It's actually by sacrifice. And Pilate looks at him and he's like, "I think this guy's innocent. I don't have anything against him." And so this is where it gets so complicated, but it's so helpful that Jesus just completely redefines the politics, the politic of Rome. He looks at Pilate and He says, "You might rule by lording it over people, but I'm going to rule by sacrificing myself on behalf of my own nation." And, and Pilate just doesn't know what to do with that. And I know we've been talking mainly about the Scriptures, but I think that's our, our marching orders as well. I think the world should look at us and say, I don't know what box to put you in. I'm not sure. I think you're political beings and I think you care about politics, but you don't fit in the categories that we have. And also you're willing to suffer on behalf of your beliefs. And I think I think Pilate's response to Jesus, if we follow His footsteps, should be the same type of response that the world has to a Christian.

Sean: Patrick, there's a certain tension in a point that you're making where you say the Christian message is politically and culturally subversive, but also submissive to government at the same time. How can it be both?

Patrick: Yeah, so you go again, and we've been spending a long time with Jesus on trial and at the cross, but Jesus at the cross, both submitted to the Roman government and by so doing, started the timer on the end of all human government. So it was the most subversive act he could ever do. So what happened on the cross is Jesus was ultimately crowned the king of the world. And I think we see that in the great commission. After Jesus is raised from the dead in Matthew 28, He says, "All authority and heaven and earth has been given to me” because of His sacrifice. In other words, that comes from Daniel 7:13-14. He is the true ruler of heaven and earth. Now, how did that happen? It came through His submissive action to the Roman government. And I think Paul is looking at Jesus' action and he's saying, "You in Rome, who are actually living in Rome, you need to do the exact same thing. You need to submit to the Roman government. And by so doing, you're actually showing them a new politics, a new way of living, a new kingdom.” So it's both subversive and submissive at the exact same time. Peter, 1 Peter 2, he says the same thing. It's 1 Peter 2:17. What does he say? He says, "Honor everyone, love the brotherhood, fear God and honor the emperor." And think about everything he just did in those four little commands. He just told everyone to honor the emperor. In other words, treat him with respect. And I think that is command we need to heed. But he also said, "Honor everyone." So at the same time of telling everyone to honor Caesar, he told people to honor the slave in the same way. And the emperor would have read that, he wasn't reading these letters, but if he would have read that, he would have said, "Great, and wait, I'm confused. You're supposed to honor me above everyone else."

Sean: Wow.

Patrick: So it was both submissive and subversive, but notice in the middle, he says, "Fear God and love the brotherhood. You need to reserve a special place in your heart for God's people and God himself. You honor everyone, but you fear God and you love the brotherhood.

Scott: So Patrick, what would it mean today for the church to be politically and culturally subversive and submissive to government at the same time…

Patrick: Yeah.

Scott: In our polarized environment?

Patrick: Yeah, man, that's such a, it's such a good question. And I think it's so hard for me to answer not knowing everyone's specific situation, so I feel like I do have to speak in generalities, but maybe I'll give you the most broad answer I can. Go to church.

Sean: [Laughs]

Patrick: I know that sounds like not what you're asking, but honestly, I think we are formed the most in our political stances by being linked with other believers in a church that is preaching the Gospel, and we are reminding ourselves of our true allegiance. So what I try to do in the book is again, I try to actually take us to church again and recognize all of the acts that we're doing. We're singing songs. We're going through rituals. We're watching baptism and the Lord's supper. We're taking part in that. We're opening a law book or a constitution. We're reminding ourselves of what our King has commanded us to do. We're going out with His commands, trying to embody what He has said for us to do. If you put it in that frame, that gathering is a very political gathering in the best sense of the term. And it's warming us to be citizens of the kingdom of God. Just like, you know, when we sing the national anthem at a sports event, that's bringing unity to the people there, ideally, right? It's supposed to bring unity to say, "Hey, we are all a part of this nation." And so we sing the national anthem or we watch a flag, right, being raised, and that's a sign of unity. In the same way, we have different sort of rituals that Christ has commanded in the church to form us into His image. And so how do we be most politically subversive and submissive? I think we remind ourselves of our calling as the kingdom of God here upon this earth.

Sean: Patrick, do you think there's a place for imposing a Christian ethic by the force of law today? And if so, what might that be?

Patrick: Yeah, that's a great question, Sean. I think it depends what we're speaking of. And so I think we'd all agree we would want to impose, what I would call a Christian moral ethic of, let's say, we are against murder. We want for that to be in the law code, right? And so I'll use a larger term, but in terms of like natural law, I do think we want to to follow and actually continue to advocate for things that align with the Christian tradition. Now you said by force. We are a democratic society and we do that by voting and by changing laws. And so I don't think we should do that by force. I think it's very clear. I mean, I already alluded to this, but in the garden, Peter pulls out his sword and he cuts off a man's ear and Jesus says, "Put your sword away. This is not how my kingdom comes." So I don't think we do that by force. Now, you go back to something like the civil rights movement. They didn't do that by force though. They made changes by nonviolence and by peace. And so I think that is more how we should continue to try to influence the nation towards what we think will bring the most flourishing to humanity. Now, this is a very complicated discussion. I don't think all of Christianity though, or Christian law should be enforced in a nation state. And so we have to go to different ethical issues and decide whether this is something that should be true for all people at all times in all places or whether this should be in the law so to say because at that point you're tipping into, we need to create whatever nation we live in as a type of Christian nation and I think that's actually a contradiction in terms.

Scott: Yeah, part of the reason for the question is I think someone could conclude from your book that there's virtually no place for using the law to promote any kind of distinctively Christian ethic. But that's clearly not what you're suggesting. As you've made clear, there are some places where using the law to enact things that are specifically and distinctly Christian can be appropriate, though probably not as widespread as some people would like to see.

Patrick: That's right, yeah.

Scott: One final question for you. If you give the church one piece of advice today in the current cultural and political environment that we're in, what would it be?

Patrick: That's a good question. You know, it's a very famous phrase, but I feel like it's a helpful one. Just be a non-anxious presence. We don't have to be concerned and so wrapped up in what's happening in the secular government because we have a greater hope and we know that Christ is King. You know, our Gospel message is Jesus is Lord. And not only is He Lord, He's Lord of Lords and King of Kings. And so while we should care about what's happening in our secular government, because it does affect people's lives in a very real way. And I want to be sympathetic to that. At the same time, our hope is not placed in any of these systems. Our hope is placed in the kingdom of God. And so in that sense, we can have, we can be calm and carry on in that sense, right? We can speak about these things and say, "These are important," but not lose our minds over them.

Scott: Yeah, I think that's a good word on this. And I think I want to commend to our listeners your book entitled Political Gospel, the subtitle Public Witness in a Politically Crazy World. It seems to me that some of these things about the public/political nature of Christian faith are maybe a little tougher to put our arms around in a liberal democracy like we have here, and easier to grasp, you know, with people who live in live under totalitarian governments, where the threat to a totalitarian government from somebody proclaiming Jesus as Lord would have been very similar to the threat imposed to the Roman Empire by the early church's proclamation that Jesus is Lord because they saw that as an inherently public/political statement. And so I think for our readers and listeners, it's really helpful, I think, that what you're talking about here is not a privatized faith, not a partisan faith, but a public one that has a lot to say about how we order our lives together in community, which makes that, in my view, fundamentally a moral enterprise, that is fully the business of our Christian faith. So we're so grateful for your book. Commend it to our listeners, Political Gospel. And make sure when you get into it, make sure you are really clear on how he's defining politics, because it's not partisan. And so, Patrick, we so appreciate your time with us. This has been so rich, and the book just has so much more than we've had time to touch on today. So thanks very much for your work and for your time with us.

Patrick: Thanks for having me, guys. Blessings to you.

Scott: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including the new fully online Bachelors in Bible Theology and Apologetics. Visit in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with our friend Patrick Schreiner, give us a rating on your podcast app and please do share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.