The Christian Churches’ Response to the Principalities and Powers

by Yong-Bok Kim

Kim Yong-Bock (family name Kim), Ph. D., is President of Hanil University and Theological Seminary in Chonbuk, Korea (Wanju-Kun Sangkwan-Myun, Shinri, 694-1; Chonbuk, Korea 565-830).  He received his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton University.  He has been a teaching fellow at Princeton Theological Seminary, an international consultant to the Commission on Ecumenical Missions and Relations, National Board of Missions, of the United Presbyterian Church (USA), and is founder and Director of the Christian Center for Asian Studies,  and  Director of the Doctor of Ministries Studies, a joint program with San Francisco Theological Seminary.

This article was written for Religion Online March 3, 1998.


The Christian church has not dealt seriously, according to Biblical standard, with the violence and destruction brought by the principalities and powers. By and large, the churches have lived by adapting themselves to the reality of the power rather than transforming it.

The Christian church has not dealt seriously according to Biblical standard, with the violence and destruction brought by the principalities and powers. By and large, the churches have lived by adapting themselves to the reality of the power rather than transforming it. The churches has sought to live in a friendly political atmosphere rather than in hostile political circumstances, and its history demonstrates this. The relation of church to state has been that of accommodation in most cases. Whether it was Papalism or Josephism, Luther's two kingdoms doctrine the calvinist doctrine of separation of church and state, or the covenant tradition, the basic political framework of the relation between church and state has been that of Christendom. Even in the context of secularization of the state the church's relation to the state has not been changed in any fundamental way in the West.

But the churches' relation to the political powers of the state in communist states and in the non-Christian West, especially in third world countries in Asia and Africa, is of a completely different nature. The traditional teachings of both Western and Eastern churches have provided no help to third world churches in dealing with the political powers in their respective situations. Their churches exist not in the context of Christendom but in a "hostile" environment. Churches in the third world have found themselves in the religious and cultural minority among a wide variety of cultures and religions.

The question of the relation of the churches to the political power is not merely that of the tolerance of religious freedom, but is the very question of the mission and witness of the church to the Gospel in the context of the political power realities. This question has been grossly neglected in our theological thinking, but it is a particularly urgent task for the churches to deal with, given the reality and nature of the modern political powers now dominating the peoples of the world.

Although there are great Christian thinkers on politics and powers such as Augustine and Reinhold Niebuhr, they have developed their political thinking in the context of the "pro-Christian" political situation where the political power was not hostile to the Christian church as such. This political context is remarkably different from that of the New Testament and the early church, where the political power was diametrically opposed to the church and even to Jesus Christ, who was crucified by the power of the Roman Empire.

The history of ecumenical social thought has not seriously treated the question of totalitarian and revolutionary powers; it has only reacted to it. Whether it was Nazi or Communist totalitarian power,

colonial or imperial power, despotic or authoritarian, militaristic or chauvinistic, the Christian church and ecumenical movement has not developed serious social thought to transform such power realities, although it has criticized them generally on the basis of the liberal political philosophy to which Christianity has been too accustomed.

There has been a tradition of political resistance since the beginning of church history. Martyrdom in the early churches as well as in the contemporary churches has provided signs of a political witness against tyranny and totalitarian dictatorships. The martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the heritage of the confessing churches under Nazi Germany is much celebrated. The Barmen Declaration is manifestly a political confession. The incidents of martyrdom of many Christians under the authoritarian powers of the third world are expressions of political resistance. Persons such as Rev. Chu Ki Ch'ol, under the Japanese colonial regime, witnessed to the Gospel in extreme political situations. Bishop Romero of El Salvador is another contemporary martyr, who had given political witness for human rights. However, this heretages of political witness are regarded as something extraordinary, and therefore, they have had no general implications for the political life of the people.  

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