According to the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society:
Christians living decades after the death of Paul kept firmly in place the same division between their obligations to God and to the State. Beyond Good Intentions states about those believers: “Though they believed they were obligated to honor the governing authorities, the early Christians did not believe in participating in political affairs.”
Today, many religions that claim to follow Christ continue to encourage their members to participate in politics. Those religions, however, are not imitating Christ, nor are they following the example of the first-century Christians.
But according to N.T. Wright:
Our particular modern and western way of formulating these matters, implying that one must either be a revolutionary or a compromised conservative, has made it harder, not easier, for us to arrive at a historical grasp of how the early Christians saw the matter. The command to respect authorities does not cut the nerve of the gospel’s political challenge. It does not mean that the ‘Lordship’ of Jesus is reduced to a purely ‘spiritual’ matter. Had that been so, the great persecutions of the first three centuries could largely have been avoided. That, as we saw in the previous chapter, was the road taken by gnosticism.
My two cents
The first quote has an element of truth—when its elements are read out of historical context. Taken as a whole, the line of argument is misleading. It sets up a false dichotomy between political powers and political activities.
People have to be careful with a first-century-Christians-never-did-it-so-then-it-must-be-unchristian line of reasoning. The first-century Christians did not have a New Testament canon—but that didn’t mean their descendants should have kept it that way.
Tom Wright was right: lordship crosses into both political and religious spheres, not just the latter. That’s a big reason why Christians were persecuted to begin with—Christianity was not respectful towards Roman political powers, but subversive and later victorious.
Pushing that further, God and the state are not two strands of a double helix that only intertwine occasionally. Instead, they are concentric circles; God envelops the state, which must answer to him. For Christians to be neutral in politics is to give a loaded gun to the non-Christian ruler. That’s acting like a Gnostic, not a Christian.
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. (n.d). Our Readers Ask . . . Did the First-Century Christians Participate in Politics?. Available: http://m.wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/2012329. Last accessed 7th Feb 2013.
- Wright, N.T. cited in Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministry. (n.d).The Impossible Faith. Available: http://www.tektonics.org/lp/nowayjose.html. Last accessed 7th Feb 2013.