Ellul on the place of political involvement for Christians

Taking the liberty of cross-posting the below from my own blog. At the suggestion of our pastor, some brothers from church and I went through a book study of Ellul’s The False Presence of the Kingdom several months back, and the below were some of the most striking and helpful statements in the book. Maybe others will find it helpful. Ellul was committed to both political involvement and activism, which makes his words all the more remarkable.

In his 1962 book The False Presence of the Kingdom, The late Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) starts by stipulating that while the Great Commission requires that Christians bring the gospel to every human institution, involvement does not equal gospel witness, and that it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking we’re doing evangelistic work when we are actually being conformed to the world and muting our gospel witness for the sake of maintaining a seat at the table.

Ellul warns most about thinking political action (lobbying, activism) is somehow required for Christians. Ellul makes these observations about the biblical teaching (or near silence) on how to be involved politically:

But in the [biblical] passages relating to the attitude of Christians we find only exhortations to obedience, to respect for the authorities, to prayer for the powers, to recognition of the honor due the king, and especially the exhortation to do good, since the ruler is there to protect the good. That is all there is…

In all scripture, political action is either absent, or is made to appear secondary. If we leave to one side the politics of the State of Israel, which is important only because the Chosen People are both State and Church, we see supreme indifference on the part of Jesus, and the greatest discretion in the epistles. One hesitates to bring up the obvious fact, which nevertheless is generally forgotten, that Jesus paid no attention to problems of politics. He definitely refuses to take the lead in the Jewish nationalist movement. He recognizes the authority of the invader. He advises the normal payment of taxes (which was then a burning issue with the Jews). He displays an indifference toward the question of taxes, showing its unimportance by the story of the fish (Matthew 17:24ff.). He welcomes “collaborators” and traitors, and at no time does he take a stand against the numerous political scandals which were rampant in Judea. Jesus says nothing against Roman torture, or against crucifixion…or against extortion. The only political statement to be reckoned with is in the exchange with Pilate, and we should note two things about that: the declaration that, when all is said and done, the power exists only because God gives it; and Jesus’ indifference with regard to the power itself, which he does not contest (“My kingship is not of this world”). When we recall the extreme political agitation in all Jewish circles at that time, the popular excitement, the political parties which divided public opinion, the rebellions, the nationalist feeling, the evocation of the glorious history of the Jews in the demand for independence, etc., we are forced to acknowledge that, for Jesus, none of these things made any sense nor had any value, nor was the Roman authority any better or more legitimate in his eyes. It was simply there, and because it was there, one had to grant it a certain validity and see behind it a decision of God. “There is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1). But that does not imply that one is to attribute a supereminent value to that authority. It can change tomorrow, and perhaps be just as good. But it was not the business of Jesus, or of the Christians, to change the authority…

Do we see in the epistles of Paul or of Peter the slightest allusion to these various assemblies, elections, and deliberations?…all we can say is that, here again, there is a great indifference with regard to politics, and there is no encouragement to take part in them…

“Whereas everyone votes, proposes laws, looks for ways to overthrow governors, attempts revolts, draws up petitions, watches over finances, etc., you Christians have something different to do. You are to be scrupulously loyal, you are to accept the decisions of the power (even unjust ones), you are to pray, you are to reject only the demonizing of the authorities, etc. That is indeed a basic task which no one is bothering to perform, and which will not be shown forth by attendance at assemblies, nor by votes and petitions.”

–Ellul, Jacques. False Presence of the Kingdom. Translated by C. Edward Hopkin. The Seabury Press, 1972. pp. 110, 113-114,116,117


Yes, and what must be noted well is that Ellul was nothing resembling the modern so-called “Two Kingdom” revisionists who say they are resurrecting the Reformers’ “two-kingdom” commitments. Not true.

The error of Two-Kingdom guys like Hart and Van Drunen is the mirror opposite of the Moscow men around Wilson, and both are equally contrary to the Reformers and Word of God.

As I’ve mentioned a number of times, read Ellul’s False Presence the first years in ministry and it warned me against the political illusion so firmly that I’ve never been tempted, even, by dudes like Reed, Falwell, Campolo, Kennedy, Sider, or Wilson. I’m so thankful to God for His protection. Get and read it.


… The error of Two-Kingdom guys like Hart and Van Drunen is the mirror opposite of the Moscow men around Wilson, and both are equally contrary to the Reformers and Word of God

Yes, and how common it is that every Christian truth is accompanied by two equal and opposite errors. Sometimes more than two errors.


A little friendly pushback. Non-involvement doesn’t equal gospel witness either. The quotation you added stressed that Jesus simply didn’t care about politics. But to come into the world as its rightful king, and to demand all kings bow to you (Psalm 2), is certainly political.

When the king becomes a Christian and asks "does the Bible say how I should rule my people" – I don’t think an appropriate answer would be that Jesus doesn’t talk about that, he’s unconcerned.

Now you may push back and say “I didn’t say he was unconcerned”, but that seems to be wanting to have your cake and eat it too. He’s either concerned about how a king rules his people or he’s not.

When the king becomes a Christian and asks "does the Bible say how I should rule my people" – I don’t think an appropriate answer would be that Jesus doesn’t talk about that, he’s unconcerned.

Thanks Tyler, and yes, I’ve put quite a bit of effort into this very issue. See here for instance!

The above is the fruit of a friend’s and my labors 5 years ago recording an audio book version of the first book of a trilogy that addresses “What if the civil magistrate feared God? What should he be taught? What should he do?”

It’s exactly someone like me (and you) who needs Ellul’s exhortation.

Charles Colson once pointed out that there is a distinction between a Christian’s private role (where he is a witness to Christ and lives for Him) and a Christian’s public role - e.g. in being in the role of the civil magistrate. In the first, his focus is faith, and serving the community of faith. In the second, he is serving the body politic as a whole; he is not in his role to act as an evangelist, but rather to serve the whole community “without fear or favour” through the just application of the law.

Hence the disconnect Ellul identifies; if a Christian is called into the public domain, well and good - and Britain does have some active Christians in its public life - but that does not mean that their role is to work to extend the Kingdom, at least not in the way we would use that term. This approach would also be true for civil servants who are Christians (I’ve worked for a national government in two roles and the local equivalent of a state government in another).

This thinking may be a rehash of the Two Kingdoms view of things, as I now look at things, but feedback would be welcome.

Brother, the whole point is that Falwell, Wilson, et al are not kings. Or even county dog catchers. They’re pastors.

I tire of reminding men that those of us who HAVE civil authorities in our congregations do call them to submit to our Lord in all things in their leadership. Appellate judges, for instance, are not to put precedent over God’s Law. We say this to them and get very specific in calling them to honor the Lord Who has all authority in Heaven and Earth concerning their decisions on abortion and sodomitic marriage, for instance. At some sacrifice to ourselves and them.

Truth is, men with the calling of church authority aren’t calling men with the calling of civil authority to obey God. Rather, they are calling men with no authority to despise their proper authorities, both church and state, and they make a large following and a good living off doing so.

They yap and yap about Jesus’ kingship, and will die like those two-thousand years of millenarian zealots before them who claimed the Name of Christ in support of their political bombast. Love,

PS: I add that all of us should be opposing this false appeal to young Reformed men so easily, so credulously, attracted to it. What do we think the Apostle Paul’s warnings were in his time? What do we think they would be in our time? Can we get beyond discussions that are private, to warning day and night with tears. The political illusion is a sinful betrayal of the Kingdom of God and all of us must exercise our (if we have one) pastoral calling in growling and biting against it so our sheep take note and steer clear.


Ah ok I think I may have misread. So the principle remains that our society should have Christian laws, but it’s the focus that these guys have that is worrisome. It inspires young men to be new crusaders and perhaps receive a lot of trouble for it.

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Not worried about trouble they’ll have. Turning from the political illusion back to preaching the Kingdom of God and His righteousness through the Church triumphant will not get them any less trouble, as countless texts in Scripture assure us. It’s just that our trouble will often come, if I may put it this way, from the religious leaders who create schism and persecute us for not joining them in their zealotry. Precisely as and why they persecuted Jesus. And the Apostles. (I freely admit religious leaders’ persecution today is pretty easy, although their political schisms are nothing to take lightly.) is Love,