The Messiah Complex

As the presidential election approaches, I can’t help but think that we citizens of the United States of America have something of a messiah complex. By this I don’t mean that we view our own country as a savior, though that is sometimes true. Rather, I mean that we the people tend to go looking for messiahs to save us. Most often these messianic hopes are attached to politicians. I remember well the hype that surrounded then Senator Obama in the 2008 election. Obama’s supporters had so much faith in what he would accomplish that John Stewart compared him to Jesus on the Daily Show. Isn’t that an interesting comparison? What kind of society fosters such a state-of-affairs? How can we even begin to compare a politician to Jesus Christ?

We can make such an absurd comparison because we place great faith in our political leaders. This is certainly true in the 2016 presidential race. We have one candidate who promises to “make America great again” and another who calls us to be “stronger together” with promises to carry forward the legacy of the current administration. Regardless of what you think of either candidate, just listen to the fervor of their supporters. Surely this candidate will bring about the change our country so drastically needs! Surely this candidate can act as an American savior!

To Christians this phenomenon should be utter nonsense. You see, we already know the Savior. He conquered death around 2000 years ago, and he has now taken his ascendant place at the right hand of God the Father. No other savior is needed, which makes this American messiah complex especially troubling for Christians.

At least it should. But how many times have we found ourselves entering the political fray just like everyone else? How many times have we been guilty of pledging our allegiance to a party or placing our faith in a candidate? How many times have our peers known more about our politics than about our faith? How many times have we been Americans before Christians? This is a sad state-of-affairs.

“But what is the alternative?” some may ask. Simply put, we place Jesus first. If we did this, we would see very quickly that Jesus is not beholden to either political party, and indeed that he calls both democrats and republicans on the carpet. For instance, Jesus would chastise many democrats for their support of abortion. And he would in the same breath rebuke many republicans for their neglect of the poor. When it comes down to it, Jesus would condemn both parties for their disagreements with the kingdom of God. Then he would call them to repentance. A similar argument can be made for presidential candidates, perhaps especially in this election.

Our allegiance to this Jesus means that we cannot pledge allegiance to a political party and that we cannot place our faith in a political candidate. Can we support them? Sure. But there is a world of difference between support and allegiance, and there is a world of difference between support and faith. In the end, our political choices are choices for the present age. As those called to look to the good of our cities, we must interact with the political machine. At the same time, doing so often means little more than making the best choices that we can with the fallen alternatives before us as we pray for God’s will to be done. (More positively, we can also seek to affect our laws and policies for the better, but that is a different discussion.)

While we Christians must live in the present age, we belong to and wait for the age to come. This is the age of Christ, when everything that disagrees with God’s kingdom will be brought into line, when every knee will bow and tongue confess the Lordship of Jesus, when there will be no more mourning or crying or death or pain. Because we belong to the coming age, we must always hold the present age before us at arm’s length. Our challenge is to be in but not of the world.

In a presidential election, this means that we make the best choices we can with the fallen alternatives that we have. It also means that we refuse to enter the frenzy that names candidates as messiahs and parties as the kingdom. We Christians are reserved for a higher kingdom, and Jesus, the King of that kingdom, requires all our allegiance and faith. Let’s be careful in coming days to remember where our loyalties lie.

Take Your Place

If you compare different translations of Ephesians 4:11-13, you’ll find an interesting disagreement.  The passage speaks of Christ giving apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers to the church.  This is a point of unity among translations.  Disunity, however, comes in the reason for this gift.  The King James Version reads: “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…”  Newer translations (NKJV, NASB, and ESV among them) opt for a slightly different understanding.  The New King James Versions renders the reason for the gift like this: “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…”  Did you catch the difference?  The words are almost exactly the same, but the number of commas differs.  For the KJV, the reason for the gift of church leaders is three-fold.  They are to perfect the saints, work in ministry, and edify the body.  For the NKJV and the other translations already mentioned, the roles of these leaders are cut down to two.  They are to equip the saints for the work of ministry and edify the body.  The placement of a comma seems slight, but the difference in meaning is great indeed!  At stake is nothing less than our understanding of ministry.  Does it belong to church leaders or to the church itself?

In my opinion, the newer translations are nearer the mark, and all Christians have a part to play in ministry.  Unfortunately, things do not always play out this way.  Many times, church leaders are understood as solely owning the task of ministry, or small portions of congregations end up doing the bulk of the work.  Yet each of us is gifted by the Spirit and has been given a role to play.  And it is when we each inhabit our roles that we find a practical outworking of the body of Christ.

This idea of shared ministry throughout the body will be important in the next couple of months as Immanuel’s Nominating Committee seeks to fill different positions of service in the church.  As this process unfolds, I invite you to prayerfully consider your own giftings and the role that you might be called to play in the coming year.  And I invite you to take your place.  As the Apostle Paul said so well in Romans 12:6-8:

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (NIV)

My prayer for the coming year is that Immanuel will find itself full of ministers, each working according to his or her gifting, and that we will find that God has gifted us well for this moment in our life together.