In a recent Theopolis podcast, Alastair Roberts called attention to the chameleon quality of the apostle Paul.
When the magistrates of Philippi want to send him away quietly, Paul reveals he’s a Roman citizen – news both to the magistrates and to readers of Acts (Acts 16:35-40). In Jerusalem, his timing is again exquisite. Just as the Roman soldiers stretch him out for enhanced interrogation, Paul asks, all innocence, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25).
He can be a Jew when he needs to be. He circumcises Timothy (Acts 16:1-3) to defuse Jewish objections to Timothy’s presence. To prove he hasn’t abandoned Moses, he agrees to pay for the sacrifices for four men who are completing Nazirite vows (Acts 21:23-26). When the Jewish mob attacks him, he begins a speech with, “I am a Jew . . . zealous for God, just as you all are today” (Acts 22:3). He divides the Sanhedrin with a more specific identification: “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6).
Paul can be a chameleon – now a Roman, now a Jew, now a Pharisee – because he has a firm over-riding purpose. “To the Jews I became as a Jew,” Paul tells the Corinthians, “to those without Law, I became as one without Law” (1 Corinthians 9:20-21). No matter what color he turns, he has a single aim: “I do all things for the sake of the gospel” (v. 23).
“I died,” Paul says. The life he lives in the flesh he lives by faith in the Son of God. All of Paul’s earlier identities are “dung” (Philippians 3:8), useful mainly as fertilizer to cultivate God’s field.
All this is highly relevant in this political season. As Mark Horne writes, Christians tend to treat voting as a quasi-sacrament of American civil religion. Voting needs to be disenchanted.
We need to learn to politick like chameleons, subordinating our voting and everything else to the purposes of the kingdom. Our identification with political parties and candidates must always be somewhat loose, always secondary to our identification with Christ and the church, always a tool of mission.
Of course, we’re not free to endorse wickedness. Everybody takes potshots at the Religious Right these days, but they were right to focus on protecting unborn babies and upholding biblical standards of sex and family was spot-on (see Theopolis articles here and here). With the rise of sexual fascism, these are even more critical than they were in the 1980s.
We should support candidates and parties that honor and protect the church. We should support parties and candidates that curb American abuses of power overseas, that genuinely serve the interests of the poorest and weakness citizens, that uphold law and preserve domestic peace, that punish evildoers and promote the good.
Within biblical constraints, though, we have a lot of room to maneuver, and we need to be shrewd about taking political stances and making political identifications. For some, advancing the kingdom requires a strong connection with a political party; for others, it means a looser link; for others, it involves investment in a new political party.
There will be moments when shouting “I am a Republican” advances the gospel. There will be times and places where a minister needs to be able to say, “I didn’t vote for Trump.” At different times, we may need to say “My grandfather was a Democrat” or “I am a native Georgian.” There are even times when the best way to advance the gospel is to keep our political views to ourselves.
As you head to the voting booth, ask questions of principle. But also ask more pragmatic questions: What vote will best serve the purposes of the kingdom? Which vote will be allow you to carry out the vocation God has given you?
We shouldn't adopt any of these guises out of cowardice. Paul is no coward. He doesn’t buckle to pressure. Quite the contrary. It takes enormous courage for Paul to keep his wits when mobs scream, “Away with him! Away with him!” It takes great presence of mind to know which identity card to show when.
Chameleons make everyone mad. They look reddish or bluish depending on which door they’re trying to open or keep open. To true believers, they look disloyal and untrustworthy. That’s fine. For disciples of Jesus, making everybody mad comes with the territory.
We need to learn the politics of Paul, following the command of Jesus, who almost says: Be as innocent as doves and wise as chameleons.
To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.