Why we should follow Paul’s example in our political moment

October 29, 2018

The news cycle has been awash in darkness recently, particularly as it regards politics. And, as a Christian, I constantly ask myself how I am to respond in such a time as this. In the midst of this question, I began rereading a debate between N. T. Wright and John Barclay, two famous New Testament scholars, on Paul’s interaction with Roman imperial power. Barclay argues something unique, and I found it to be a helpful canopy to put over our current political moment.

Relegating and subverting power

Barclay claims Paul relegated and consigned Rome to an insignificant player. He did so by hardly ever speaking of her power. Every day, Paul was reminded of Rome’s sovereignty as he passed coins back and forth in trade. He stood below statues and in cities filled with souvenirs of Caesar’s power. He watched as people suffered under Roman governors and their terrible miscarriage of justice.

In the shadow of Rome, his most subversive act was not to oppose it, but deny its principal significance. He did not direct people’s attention to the shadow, but away from it—to a greater power at work. The main power players in Paul’s drama were the triune God and the threefold opposition of sin, flesh, and death. Rome was a sideshow to what Christ was doing by his Spirit and through the church.

Paul’s message was centered not on Caesar as the “son of God” but another “son of God” who opposed Rome not by sword and spear, but submission and sacrifice. The Roman Empire was subsidiary to this story, because they were simply pawns in the hands of the powers of darkness. A greater narrative was at work, and Paul wanted to point out where true power resided. Two reigns existed in the world according to Paul: the reign of grace and the reign of death—grace had overcome death.

Paul was not so much like the little boy in the crowd who cried out that the emperor had no clothes. He was more like the unnamed boy in the crowd who looked beyond the parade because he could see this was only a bad imitation of what was to come.  

Paul was following Jesus’ example. When Jesus was asked the most politically charged question of the day, whether they should be complicit in Rome by paying taxes to Caesar, he didn’t respond by flying off the rail at their abuse of power. He also didn’t speak in a soft and hushed voice, fearing their authority. Instead, he subverted their power—not by calling for a boycott, but by shrugging. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” In essence, Jesus said Caesar is not as important as you think he is. Jesus’ message about the kingdom made Rome’s shadow a passing cloud.

Shrugging at power

Maybe we need to learn from Paul’s tactics. Maybe we are at least partially complicit in granting too much power to the current governmental systems by our feverish responses. By manically and incessantly speaking of them, we hand them the scepter. The media can’t bear all of the blame. With the rise of social media, the people are now the media. If we give them 24-hour coverage, we endow them with influence.

Christians are not a panicked people, a frightened flock, or an alarmed assembly. We are a calm community because we are children of the true King.

Paul stripped Rome of its power by relegating it. That is truly subversive. He saw the shadow of Rome and ignored it. This does not mean we stop engaging in politics and retreat to our monasteries. This does not mean we stop speaking that which has implications for the common good. This does not mean we neglect voting when we can work toward justice.  

What this does mean is we begin speaking with serenity and a more clearly defined “structured authority.” We tell people to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and then we change the subject. Like Paul, we relegate their power by not assigning them power. We pin our rulers to the larger canvas called the kingdom of God and show people all governments are servants, not masters. To pay attention to them in an unhealthy manner is to make them more than they are.

The first business of the church, as Oliver O’Donovan has said, is to refuse to worship the powers that be. We refuse them worship by not feverishly responding to their actions. “Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy . . . The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. There are many times . . . when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.” In other words, like Jesus and Paul, we pick up the coin with Caesar’s inscription and shrug.

Christians are not a panicked people, a frightened flock, or an alarmed assembly. We are a calm community because we are children of the true King. As Marilyn Robinson has said, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” Fear drives panic, but we ought not to be an anxious people. Our God has told us over and over again, “Be not afraid” because the true King is alive and seated on the throne.

Patrick Schreiner

Patrick Schreiner is associate professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24