Our worship is loaded with royal language. We sing of thrones and majesty. We pray to the Lord. We speak of sovereignty. We bow our heads in reverence. But what does it mean to have a king?
For most Americans, having a king means following the Windsor family of the U.K. as if they were the stars of a reality show about an eccentric family. It is perplexing that we continue to be fascinated by this single set of royals. They seem to be a pleasant but sometimes troubled bunch who are quite mannerly and high class. They wear fancy uniforms and big hats but they lack any real political authority – which seems to make them all the more endearing to most Americans.
Why aren’t we more diverse in our appreciation of royal families? For example, Princess Victoria of Sweden married her personal trainer, Daniel. You have to appreciate the fact that this “non-royal” man married a princess and he did not even have to slay a dragon to earn the opportunity. Historically, the U.S. has as many ties with Spain as it does Britain, so why aren’t we paying attention to the Spanish Royals? King Felipe VI has a beard that makes him resemble “The World’s Most Interesting Man.” His wife, Queen Letizia was a news anchorwoman before they married. She also wears strange hats.
Why aren’t we fascinated by monarchs that actually have political power? King Salman of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarch. It’s good to be the king! But I suppose we think of him as a political leader. I doubt we will ever see King Salman on the cover of magazines in the check-out line. An absolute monarch does not have problems with paparazzi.
Lest we assume that our fascination with the British royals has to do with the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II, note that the King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, began his reign in 1946. Before his death in October 2016, he had a six-year lead on Elizabeth. We should give him some credit. King Bhumibol was incredibly popular and loved by the people of Thailand. He even hung out with Elvis Presley and seemed to enjoy it. The King of Thailand and the King of Rock!
Why does any of this matter? It matters because it demonstrates that Americans do not truly know what it means to have a monarch. That lack of familiarity with true royal experience keeps us from fully appreciating the royal language of Scripture and worship.
A South African colleague in graduate school pointed that out to us years ago. He said, “You Americans do not know what it means to have a king!” I must admit that he is right. Our understanding of royal concepts in Scripture and worship are hindered by our National Inquirer relationship with a particular royal family. So, we do not fully get it when we speak of the Lord of lords. I believe we treat the title “Lord” as something a notch above a courtesy, like saying “Sir and Ma’am.” What we must grasp is that having a king means much more than respect.
What does it mean to have a king? It means that we know the one person who has true authority. Jesus said it himself, “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.” (Matt 28:18). That authority hasn’t been given to anyone else since then. Jesus needs no heir since he is eternal. Church leadership is one thing. We have many gifts of leadership in the church, but authority rests solely with the King – that is, Jesus Christ. Church government is not a difficult concept to understand. Regardless of how one positions elders, pastors, deacons, apostles, bishops or any other office, church government is an absolute monarchy with Jesus Christ as king and everyone else as subject. We all submit to him. End of discussion.
What does it mean to have a king? It means we know the lasting significance of the gospel. The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus are about three-fourths of the early church’s confession of the gospel. The remaining fourth was the testimony that the risen Christ is exalted to rule as God’s King (Phil 2:9-11). God has exalted Christ and given him a name above all names. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he is Lord. It is not an option, just a matter of time. Americans may not understand this because our history is unique in that we have not embraced a monarchy. Nevertheless, we confess that there is a monarch over the United States. Not the royalty of any authority on earth, but the King over the Kingdom of God.
What does it mean to have a king? It means we bow down. This is where religion and politics are more connected than Americans are likely to admit. We do not elect a king. We do not crown the king. We do not make the King a king by our consent. God does that. He has made Jesus Christ king. Our involvement is limited to bending the knee – or not. Bowing down is more than a posture in worship. It is an act of allegiance. Our worship is a political act of reverence to the true power in heaven and earth. This is why certain empires and governments get nervous about the Christian faith at times. Faithful Christians recognize only one lasting authority. Sure, we may be respectful of other governments and even serve them when they are not opposed to the way of the King, but our allegiance and obedience is reserved solely for the Lord of lords and King of kings. All of our other commitments are an outgrowth of that single allegiance.
What does it mean to have a king? It means that we must choose a side. There is nowhere on earth where Christ is not king. There’s no such thing as a “Christian nation” because there’s no such thing as a “non-Christian nation.” Those are concepts left over from Christendom and they assume that a government may opt in to the Kingdom of God and thus expand the K.O.G.’s territory. A reading of Scripture indicates that it doesn’t work like that. Christ is king everywhere and in everything. His rule is complete. It includes global politics, and then some. Some choose to accept it, whereas others reject it. Rejecting the authority does not nullify the authority. All the world may resist and war against Christ and his followers but the Lamb of God will triumph because God has made him Lord of lords and King of Kings (Rev 17:14).
In centuries past, the church struggled to reconcile the absolute rule of Jesus Christ with the temporal rule of kings, queens, and emperors. Today our struggle is more akin to the situation described in Judges 17, 18, 19, and 21: “In those days Israel had no king and everyone did what seemed right in their own eyes.” In our current turmoil with identity politics and worship preferences we struggle to find common ground in politics and religion. That might change if we recognize that our common ground is the King’s land. In a kingdom, the king is the defender and standard of what is right and just. We look to the king for the standard of what is right. Without a king, we fuss and fight or shrug and assume that everyone is right; which often means no one is right.
Chris Benjamin is the preaching minister for the WestArk Church of Christ in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He previously served as preaching minister for the Lake Jackson Church of Christ in Lake Jackson, Texas, and campus minister for the CCSC on the campus of Arkansas Tech University. Benjamin earned his D.Min. and M.Div. from ACU and his B.A. from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, where he and his wife Karen were involved in the Razorbacks for Christ campus ministry. They have two sons, Wyatt and Ethan. When he is not restoring some portion of his 50- year-old house, Chris enjoys a good story told well—no matter if it is a novel, comic strip, movie, or comedian.