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November 5, 2019

Jesus Followers in the Public Domain: Pray or Protest?

by Nabil Habiby

Day 13. Demonstrators close the main roads in almost every major city in Lebanon. This is the biggest protest (the people on the street call it a revolution) since the formation of the modern state of Lebanon (1920). It has reached across party lines and religious sects. The people everywhere are calling for major reforms and an overhaul of the outdated sectarian system which has allowed the sectarian civil war leaders to stay in power. Government thugs have tried to break up the protests with little success. The prime minister has just resigned. People wait tensely in front of their screens for any news.

Day 13. Lebanese Evangelicals only talk about one thing, politics. The debate centers on participating in the protests. Should Jesus followers protest against the government? Prominent church leaders have come out to support both sides of the arguments. (e.g. pastor Tony Skaff against participation in a sermon on 25 October; pastor Hikmat Kashouh with participation in a sermon on 27 October). Regular churchgoers are throwing verses at each other. Social media is awash with people vehemently arguing that “Jesus did not revolt against the Romans,” or “we are called to fight injustice.”

I am a Lebanese myself. I am an active participant in church ministry. I am also an active participant in the current protests. Allow me to pause and look at the big picture. What is the question at stake here? Is it; should Jesus followers participate in protests against the government? I will not address this here. I think you can guess my answer. Does the Bible ban us from protesting against the government? I will also refrain from directly addressing this question in this brief blog. Exegesis of biblical passages is important and crucial. But in such matters, both parties can wrestle through the same passage and come out with different conclusions.

I believe the central question at stake here is this: What is the role of Jesus followers, if any, in the public domain? Are we called to engage in politics, protests, and civil disobedience? Or should we stick to the basics, worship and sharing the story of Jesus?

As in every good Evangelical sermon, I will make three arguments, each building on the one before it. I aim to construct a crude biblical framework to answer our central question. A complete answer must need multiple conferences and books.

First, simply asking Jesus followers to refrain from protesting against any government at any point in history is an overly simplistic reading of the Bible and theology. Cliché historical moments come to mind. The German church in the time of Hitler. The Rwandan church in the time of the genocide. The American church in the time of slavery in the US. I can presume to say that any serious Jesus follower will look at these historical times, and many others, and exclaim: of course, if I were there I would have spoken up against the government. Cliché biblical stories also come to mind. Moses asking the government, Pharaoh, to let his people go. Elijah confronting the government, Ahab, concerning his sins. Young Judean captives like Daniel disobeying their Babylonian captors. John likening Rome to a sinful city and a monster in his Revelations. I can presume that any serious Bible reader will look at these stories, and many others, and agree that the biblical prophets and giants of faith were standing up to their respective governments.

Now the second argument. The Jesus movement we see in the New Testament is one in constant contact with the public domain. The New Testament writers and readers were part of the real social world. They faced real political challenges.[1] Granted that empire-wide persecution did not occur until the end of the first century (when most New Testament books had already been written), in a number of Romans cities everyone participated in the imperial cult and to abstain would be seen as rebellion against the whole empire.[2] Indeed, the Roman Empire is the “pervasive context” of the New Testament books.[3] The New Testament books are not just spiritual books. They also have a political side to them. Jesus was crucified by the Jewish religious authorities and the Roman political leaders.

That being said, Warren Carter presents a spectrum of the different ways in which the New Testament texts evaluate the Roman Empire.[4] I believe this spectrum can be a useful guide as we negotiate our central question, what is the role, if any, of Jesus followers in the public domain, in this blog and in our daily conversations. The spectrum contains five different evaluations or ways of thinking and interacting with the Roman world:

  • The Empire is of the devil: The Empire is under the rule of Satan (e.g. Satan claiming that the world is his in Luke 4:6-7; the deceiver gives his power to a beast from the sea, probably Rome, in Revelations 13:12).
  • Rome’s World is under judgement: The Empire will be judged by God in the final days (e.g. Paul claims that the rulers of this world who lack God’s wisdom will perish in 1 Cor. 2:6; Jesus in Mark 13, Mat. 24-25, and Luke 21 speaks of the destruction of the kingdoms of this world in the end)
  • In the meantime: Acts of Transformation: We are to act in ways which are according to God’s Kingdom rather than the current Empire (e.g. Jesus describes his ministry as one which will transform society in Luke 4:18-19a. Here, he is citing from Isaiah but using the image of the Jubilee year from Lev. 25).
  • In the meantime: Alternative Communities: Communities of Jesus followers are to follow Kingdom ethics rather than Empire ethics (e.g. Paul asks the minority community of believers in Rome to live according to God’s will in Rom. 12:2; Contra to Rome’s tax collection policies, Paul collects monetary gifts from Gentile communities to send to the Jerusalem church in 1 Cor. 16: 1-4).[5]
  • Submitting to, Praying for, and Honoring the Empire: A more positive appraisal of the Empire which calls Jesus followers to submission (e.g. Pauls’ requests in Rom. 13:1-7; Peter’s request to honor the emperor in I Peter 2:17).

I have so far argued that the question of participation in the public domain is not as clear-cut as some would have it, and I have also suggested that the New Testament contains a spectrum of at least five different reactions to the Empire. Now on to the third and final conclusion of this blog: A Christian is already a participant in the public domain. Why not, then, think about our effect in that domain?

As my brief analysis of the New Testament, and before that a few examples from the Old Testament, has shown, Jesus’ followers are in constant interaction with the public domain. Even the extreme end of the spectrum, praying for and submitting to authorities, is essentially an interaction in the public domain. Yes, you pray in your room or inside your church, but the church’s absence from a public event, let’s say a public protest, is in itself a public statement. The church would then be technically making a statement that these protests are meaningless, and only a special divine intervention will do. One could also argue that the church’s absence from a public event may also be a tacit statement of approval of the ruling authority.

Being in the public domain is not a choice. Much like the 1st century church, we are surrounded by Empire(s). Much like the 1st century church, we might find ourselves standing before the emperor himself to share the gospel, or we might find ourselves banished on an island for preaching that Jesus is Lord.

I call upon all Jesus followers in Lebanon and the MENA region to be theologically and biblically aware that we are already part of the public domain. Let us wrestle with the question: What are we telling our partners in our country about our stance on the public issues of the day? Not having a stance is a stance in itself.

Finally, I call upon all Jesus followers in Lebanon and the MENA region to strive to show Christian compassion to fellow believers and non-believers who are adopting a different approach to the public domain. The New Testament is far from one-sided on this issue. If you choose to pray silently in your room, do not judge your brother or sister who is protesting in the streets. Know that your choice to be absent is an engagement with the public domain. Know that they too are trying to show a biblical response in public.

May the Lord show mercy on his church, this country, and the entire region. Lord have mercy.

[1] Loveday C. A. Alexander, “The Relevance of Greco-Roman Literature and Culture to New Testament Study,” in Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation, 2nd ed. (ed. Joel B. Green; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010), 88-9.

[2] Peter Oakes, “Re-mapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians,” in JSNT 27.3 (2005): 314.

[3] Warren Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (Abingdon Essential Guides; Nashville: Abingdon, 2006), 51 (Kindle).

[4] The five evaluations can be found in Ibid., 315-449 (Kindle).

[5] Points 3 and 4 on the spectrum are very similar. I have kept all five evaluations in order to best reflect the work of Carter. I am not evaluating the spectrum.


  1. Robert says:

    I pray for my brethren in Lebanon. Jesus’ first followers included Matthew the tax collector on one side and Simon the Zealot on the other. But Jesus said His Kingdom is not of this world- it transcends politics. He also said to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (and to God what is God’s!). See also Romans 13. Although I’m interested in politics, I think the church as a whole should rise above it…

    • Thank you for your comments. I understand your point of view. I was trying to say that the NT has different views on the matter.

      I think that it is important to realize that our actions as a church have political implications. Jesus’ actions too had political implications.

  2. As an American Christian with roots in Jordan, I want to say AMEN to Nabil Habiby’s wise counsel. Jesus is the LORD of Lords, the KING of kings. Therefore there is no escaping the political implications of the Gospel. Moreover, the primary political significance of the Gospel is what happens when the governor repents of his sins and gives honor to the One to whom honor is due: then there is political freedom! How then can the church neglect her prophetic role in society?

    The American church is praying for you. Courage, my brothers and sisters! God is with us!

    Thomas Alderman

  3. Jame E. Brenneman says:

    Nabil Habiby: First of all, your commentary — while in the midst of personal, historic, political upheaval — has all the factors found in a master-teacher! Oh to be a student in your classroom. Your style alone is worth emulating: so moving, so pastoral, so prophetic, and so biblical. You model the significance and respect God gives us, created in God’s image, in making our own choices among alternative options, each according to our conscience. “Choose this day whom you will serve?” is a question as old as the garden of Eden, found throughout the rest of Scripture, and every day since. Whatever choices we make have real-life (political) consequences as the evidence shows in your first argument. Trying to avoid making these choices because they are thought to be too political, too unclear as to outcome, too afraid to do so, is itself, a choice with political consequences as you suggest in your third argument. Life would be so much easier if we did not have to face such real-life-choices. Thanks be to God, we do have examples in Scripture and life of those who have tried to choose life, choose God’s way of justice and mercy, choose Christ, choose what is right and good, against all odds, when it truly matters. God be with you!

    Jim Benneman, President, American Baptist Seminary of the West.

    • Thank you sir for your moving words! Yes, i agree that we have to constsntly strive to find and choose God’s way in a dark world.

      May the Lord continue to guide us all as we live out His Kingdom…

  4. […] to outright rebellion (e.g. Daniel and his friends in Babylon; Elijah and king Ahab…etc.). See my take on the spectrum of reactions to authority in the New Testament. But we never see the people of God totally in sync with the authorities. Even at the height of […]

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