The Christian and the State I
Given the recent news coverage about the upcoming elections I was inspired to revisit some thoughts I had written down a while back about the Christian and Politics. These thoughts will appear in three essays – The Christian and the State, The Church and the State, and This Christian and This State.
There are actually several overlapping issues involved when we think of the relationship between church and state, and the role of the Christian citizen in a democratic republic. In this letter I want to delineate the questions as clearly as I can. I have always felt that asking the right questions is half of the battle when dealing with any issue.
Question # 1. What can we learn from the Bible as to the relationship between the church as an institution and the state as an institution? Yes, the church is more than an institution, as is the state. But it is not less than an institution. How do these two institutions relate to each other? What is the purpose of each, what has each to do with the other? This is not the same question as to how the Christian citizen relates to the State, but how the Church as institutional body relates to the State as an institutional body.
We must be willing to admit that the Bible does not address this relationship in much detail. Granted, State and Church were tightly wedded in the Old Covenant, when the people of God equaled national
. But now in the New Covenant
era the people of God does not equal a national entity. Rather, the church as a
local assembly with its own leaders and government exists parallel to these
other God ordained institutions. Israel
Let me subdivide the question. What is the basic function of the civil government? What is the basic function of the church? What obligation does the one have toward the other? What control or influence may one seek to exercise over the other?
Question # 2. What can we learn from the Bible as to the relationship between the Christian citizen as an individual and the state as an institution? What is the citizen's demeanor and attitude to be toward the governing authorities? What is the state's demeanor and attitude to be toward the Christian citizen and his "free exercise of religion?" When, if ever, can civil disobedience be justified?
Now the one thing in this whole discussion that Scripture is clear about is the attitude of respect and honor which the Christian citizen is to have toward the governing authorities, which includes the particular people in office at different times. This attitude sometimes appears to me to be a lost virtue. Our open system and democratic process actually discourage this type of deferential speech and attitude.
In comparison to the many clear exhortations to the Christian as to his attitude toward the ruling authorities, little is said about what the State's attitude is to be toward the free religious expression of its subjects. What is said is important, but relatively little is actually said. How the State deals with and handles the religious expression of its subjects is, in a representative democracy, an important public policy issue. But the weight of commandment in Scripture is on the Christian with respect to his or her attitude and obedience to the State. Scripture in general is less concerned about the Christian's "rights" than his obligations.
Question # 3 How do Christians in a representative democracy relate to the public policy issues of the day? How do Christians go about participating in civic discourse and civil government? Is the fact that the citizen is a Christian make any difference in public policy debate? How should it make a difference and how does a Christian think Christianly about public policy matters?
The latter is not as clear as it might seem. I know committed evangelical believers who are on different sides of certain public policy matters, both of whom are trying to frame their approach by their Christian worldview. The Bible just doesn't tell us definitively how a society is to be structured. Two informed, God-fearing, thinking Christians might disagree on a public policy matter just as they might disagree on the best way to handle a problem child or a property dispute. The Bible does not tell us how big a government should be, what the tax rate should be, what responsibility the government has in dealing with environmental problems, how many tanks it should have in its army, etc. We are not told to what degree governmental authority and power should be centralized or distributed to sub-governments. We are not told many things, and we must make our way with humility and wisdom and civility, a lot of which seems absent in public discourse today. Since we may have different views on public policy questions we may also have different views as to which candidates to support. In addition, we may find that although two of us might find that we agree on the content of various issues, we disagree with how we would weight these issues in relation to each other. Or, we may decide that although we agree on issues we have different views of who could best represent these issues in the city councils or state houses or congress or White House. Finally, Christians who agree on the substance of an issue may approach strategies for change differently. One may be more inclined to "get what you can" given the realities of the moment, the other may take a more “all or nothing” approach.
Hopefully we might be able to construe a basic framework or working boundary from the revelation we have received in Scripture about government and its role and purpose, but within that framework there may be lots of room to wiggle and disagree with each other even as Christians. In time I will try to show how this could happen by using specific examples.
Question # 4 How does the individual Christian relate his or her passion and concern for a particular policy matter or political issue or candidate to his or her passion for the kingdom of God, or the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ? What wisdom does Scripture give that would allow us to give proper relative weight to these two important matters? Related to this, how should the Christian relate to a brother or sister who approaches public policy issues in a different way?
Question # 5 How does the Christian understand culture as a general phenomenon, and how does he relate to it? Historically there have been many approaches. This question relates to all of the questions above, and in many ways is "underneath" them. This is a complex biblical and theological question, but one with which all Christians at some level must deal. I will try in time to make sense of this for you.
Let’s take a closer look at the first two questions.
We must remember right at the beginning that our constitution affords us more freedom than we are free as Christians to exercise. What I have the legal right to do I may not have the moral freedom as a Christian to do. I have a constitutionally guaranteed freedom to speak all kind of ill things against the person and character of a state or national leader. But I do not have the freedom as a follower of Jesus Christ to do this. There is a lot of frustration and anger in general, and a lot of that gets focused on the national or state leadership. This may lead us to say things we shouldn't, or speak in a tone that we shouldn't. You might say to me that you have the freedom to speak all you want about the President or Governor or anyone else in authority. You are right; you have the legal freedom to do this. You also have the legal freedom to covet, to leave your spouse, to lie, to gossip, and to be promiscuous, but that doesn't mean you have the moral freedom as a follower of Jesus to do this. So we must make clear distinction here between our freedoms.
I do not write this out of any sense of superiority or self righteousness. I have been guilty of what I speak, and I want to be more like my Lord in this regard. Every time I drive out Elm Street extension in Greensboro and see the development there – houses and condominiums and apartments -- right down to the edge of a lake whose water flows right into the lake from which we get our drinking water I feel in my flesh like I want to call down curses upon our city and county councils. Every time I see certain politicians defending the tobacco industry I want to stand up and call them all sorts of names. Every time I hear of politicians defending abortion rights I get so distressed I want to scream. Indeed, if you could have seen me in years past, I did my share of screaming, of shouting down speakers, of going on tirades, etc. But what in my flesh I have done or may want to do, I have to watch out for in the Spirit. There is a way to deal with this stuff inside of me -- this anger, this frustration, this sense of injustice – and a way not to deal with it. I must first of all, as God's child, submit to His will for me and so I go to His word to see just what instructions He has for me. Then I pray for the empowering of the Spirit to enable me to walk in obedience. It is true that there may be a time for me to speak prophetically against situations in the culture, but I am referring here to my ordinary demeanor and speech, particularly about civil authorities.
The Bible is unclear about many things when it comes to how we understand the State. But it is crystal clear about the respect and honor we are to afford the civil authorities. Here are a few Scriptures:
Titus 3:1-2 Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men (NIV).
1 Peter 2:13-17 Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king (NIV).
Romans 13:1-7 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor (NIV).
Matthew 22:15-22 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away (NIV).
1 Timothy 2:1-7 I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone--for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ who gave himself as a ransom for all men--the testimony given in its proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle--I am telling the truth, I am not lying--and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles (NIV).
I might add just a few general reminders about the manner of our speech:
Ephesians 4:29-31 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice (NIV).
Philippians 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things (NIV).
And if that isn't enough, I remind you that it was God's providential will that George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and George Bush (and Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter, or whoever) become president. Had we not learned anything else from our studies in the Bible, we should have learned that God is sovereign, and He sets up and he takes down kings and rulers. For this period of four years at least, it is God's will that George Bush be our president. And we are to afford Mr. Bush due respect because of this. George Bush (and before him Bill Clinton) is in the present our God appointed, God ordained Commander in Chief and President. In respecting him, we respect the God who placed him there. In dishonoring him, we dishonor the God who set him up as our president. We must pray for him, we must speak respectfully of him.
Daniel 4:17 "'The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men (NIV).'
There are several points I want to make as a follow up:
1. We as parents need to remember that we teach our kids a lot by the way we act and speak. Do we want our kids to respect authority, to be peaceable and godly? Then we must model the way of Christ for them. How can we expect them to speak with deference and respect to employers, to civil authorities, or even to us, when we speak non-respectfully and non-deferentially ourselves?
2. Jesus and Paul did not command us to give honor and respect to those kings that we judge to be particularly good, righteous, or deserving. Do you think Nero, who was emperor when Paul penned his words in 1 Timothy 2, was a morally pure, chaste, peaceable man who believed in giving power back to the provinces and reducing the federal bureaucracy?
3. We must remember that many of us do not agree about who should be our choice for particular offices. How we speak about these things is not only a matter of obedience to God, but of love and respect and deference to our brothers and sisters in Christ. We have in our own midst registered Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. I think many if not most of us agree in broad outline about a number of issues, but we may have different ideas about solutions, approaches, strategies. We may have different ideas about policy approaches. Most of you know that I am a pro-life, fiscal conservative, tree hugging environmental wacko. There's probably something in my personal political orientation to bother everyone. But my fellowship with you as a brother and sister in Christ is not in our shared political affiliation, but in our salvation in Jesus, in our life in the Spirit. You and I may talk in private about these matters. We may agree about some things, and we may disagree about others, but our bond is not in our politics. At least, it shouldn't be. If it is, then we are just at the very very beginning of our sanctification process.
4. I remember like it was yesterday when a bunch of Christian guys were over at my house playing three-on-three basketball. I had invited a neighbor to play, a man whom I had wanted to get to know, and to whom I was trying to reach out. He decided to play. After one game, we all took a break, and found shelter from the sun under the shade of our crab apple tree. It wasn't long before the conversation of the guys turned to Rush Limbaugh and things he had been saying about such and such. There followed a period of sarcastic Democrat and Clinton bashing, and then we went back to playing some more ball. I was sitting there with a pit in my stomach. As far as I knew my neighbor was a Democrat and fond of President Clinton. He certainly was very quiet. What message did we give him?. He knew we were all Christians. What might we have been saying to him, “Repent of your politics and enter the kingdom?"
5. Christians as citizens are certainly not to avoid politics. We will be speaking in the next phases of this series about the proper involvement we should have in the political process. Certainly Christians’ widespread abandonment of public issues has been partly to blame for many of the problems of our day. But there is a way to be involved and a way not to be. We are to be as salt and light even in the way we carry out this process. If Christians can't be elected because they are under obligation to respectful and deferential toward their neighbor whom they are running against, well I guess Christians aren't supposed to get elected. I personally think that there is a longing and hunger for dignity and grace. Would we compromise our obedience to the Lord Jesus by an inappropriate approach? Certainly the Lordship of Christ over our lives says not only that we are to let that Lordship lead us to take appropriate responsibility as citizens, but is also determines how we proceed in carrying out that responsibility. Jesus is to be Lord of our speech about our God ordained leaders. Jesus is to be Lord of our speech in our political activity.
6. All of this bears of course upon our speech in public gatherings of the church. I will address in the next part of this series the relation of the church as institution to the state as institution. But for now let me say that we are certainly bound when we are together in worship -- whether in cell community worship or Lord's day worship -- to be obedient to the commandments of Scripture. Let us be careful about our words and about our tone in both of these settings. Some of us are deeply frustrated about some issues we face as a community and nation. We may need to ask for prayer for our own personal frustration and anger. We could and should be free to confess these things to one another. Sometimes I am so frustrated and worried over certain issues I just want to weep. I hurt for myself. I hurt for what my grandchildren will inherit from us. I am frustrated that these matters can't be addressed. I will indeed vote accordingly, but I still must deal with what's inside. The sadness, the frustration, is personal and real. It is good for you to pray for me and me for you in this way. So if we must share, let it be with tears and for one another. But we must be obedient to the other commands about respect and honor of those in authority over us, even as we may personally deal with stuff inside.
7. Finally, I really do believe that many of us over-identify the
with our present country and
culture. This is a theological error and problem which diverts our energies
away from our devotion to Christ, and intensifies our frustration and sorrow
and anger. God is in covenant today not with nations in general, and not with
this nation in particular, but with the Church universal, with those who are
called by His name and gathered into His family. There may well still be
covenant curses and blessings (See Revelation chapter 2) but these are extended
if at all first and foremost to the churches of Jesus Christ. If we have
passion for justice and truth and right, let this first call us to fasting and
prayer for ourselves, and for our churches, and may it lead us to the most
profound personal and corporate repentance as the kingdom of God .
Then perhaps we will see more fruit coming forth from our lives into the nation
in which we find ourselves. church of Christ
The Christian and the State: II
This is the text of a letter written to the congregation of Covenant Fellowship prior to the 1996 elections.
Well, the primaries are over, and we now hunker down for the long campaigns ahead. The political process is fascinating, and I am very happy to see lots of people involved. I commend you for your work, for being engaged in the process. My desire is for you to all be good citizens, and involvement in the political process is one way to be that.
Over the last several weeks and months I have received several calls from people involved in the Robin Hayes for governor campaign wanting me to go to meetings, give out literature at church, give out literature at polling places, etc. I didn’t actually do any of these things, but I appreciated the calls. The requests suggest that lots of people are involved in the political process, which is a good thing. I am thankful that they care, and that they have cared enough to ask me to consider doing these things. I would say the same if these folks had called me from the Vinroot or Sanders or Helms or Clinton campaign.
But these requests and suggestions have caused me to think a bit more about what exactly is my role in all of this as a pastor, and what is the role of the Church in general, and of Covenant Fellowship in particular. I am going to think “out loud” in this letter.
I thank God for the separation that exists in our country between Church and State. Whether our Founding Fathers envisioned the kind of separation that we have today is an open question. Certainly they would not have envisioned the separation between “religion” and the State. But the establishment clause suggests that the fathers had a profound fear of the loss of liberty to be had at the hands of a State church, or at the hands of a State meddling in the Church. Article I pretty much gets the State out of the business of controlling the Church. I am thankful for this. This is a precious and blessed protection for the Church of Jesus Christ.
What we have in our U.S. Constitution is an acceptable way for a body politic to be organized. It is certainly within the boundaries of what the Bible suggests is the role and function of the State. Plus, the relation between Church and State suggested in Article I of the Bill of Rights is also within Biblical boundaries. However, the Bible gives much less detail about this than you might realize, and many alternative approaches would actually also be within its boundaries. But our constitutional arrangement is certainly not non-Biblical.
The Constitution says very little about how the Church is to relate back to the State. This silence is consistent with Article I of the Bill of Rights. The State shouldn’t be telling the church how to relate back to the State. Of course, it is not the Constitution but the Bible to which I go to understand how the Church is to relate back to the State. But surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t say terribly much about this!
Know that the questions of, on the one hand, how the Church as an organized entity relates to the State and, on the other hand, how the citizen relates to the State – these are two different questions. In Part I of this series I discussed the relation of the citizen to the State. What I am concerned with now is the role of the Church as a corporate entity, and as an institution, with respect to the State.
One must first of all clarify that in the New Covenant era, Church and State are in fact two separate “bodies” or jurisdictions, both established and ordained by God. These jurisdictions were of course closely united in the Old Covenant. Then the “people of God” equaled “Israel,” and vice versa. Strictly speaking, the Torah did not at first even allow for a king. Rather, God Himself was to be the Ruler. After God chose to accommodate the people’s hankering after a king, the king was to be God’s representative, and was to be the enforcer of the Torah. Thus the king’s role, among other things, was to make sure the temple worship was pure, and that the people did not slide into idolatry and immorality, that they kept Sabbath, etc. What we might consider “religious” acts – things like worshipping a tree – were punishable by death, and the king was held accountable for carrying out these sentences and maintaining the fear of God in the land. Pluralism was not to be tolerated. The Old Covenant very clearly “established” a religion, a very specific and detailed religion. Its “constitution,” that is, the Torah, did not allow freedom of speech or assembly, or the free exercise of religion. In practice, however, the kings often forsook the Covenant, abandoned the Torah, and even lost it and forgot about it altogether for years and years. They acted mostly like despots and politicians always do. They looked after their dynasties, and permitted whatever worked for them. So much for the Old Covenant.
God brought judgment upon His people, and the Old Covenant came to an end, and was fulfilled, and “wrapped up” in Jesus Christ. He lived it out perfectly, and bore its curse. It was finished, over. And God’s people became formally disassociated from the State. New Testament teachings show a very different approach to the civil government and its leaders. The people of God, the New Covenant people, the “ekklesia,” which we call the “Church” was sort of an underground movement. The kingdom it proclaimed was “not of this world.” Its citizens were “strangers and aliens and exiles on earth” (Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 1:1,1:17,2:11; James 1:1). Its members were “citizens of heaven” (Phil. 3:20). It looked to a city whose “architect and builder was God” (Hebrews 11:10). Like Abraham, it’s people were looking for a “better country” (Hebrews 11:16). Its people had come to “Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God (Hebrews 12:22). They were still a chosen people, a holy nation, a “nation” of course in a more figurative sense, a people belonging to God (1 Peter 1:9).
But the nations and their governments were given legitimacy in the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. Christians are called to submit to (Romans 13:1-5; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13), pay taxes to (Romans 13:6-7; Matthew 22:17), honor (Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:17), pray for (1 Timothy 2:1), and fear (in the good sense, Romans 13:4) the civil authority. God has ordained the rulers to keep order, to punish evil (Romans 13:1-5, 1 Peter 2:13-14), and to provide an atmosphere of peace and stability ( 1 Timothy 2:2). The commandments to honor and submit to civil authority aren’t commandments to honor and submit to just those civil authorities we think do well at their God-ordained job, but to honor and submit to tyrants and despots like Nero as well!
I only know of one place where believers as God’s people gathered to worship are told to do anything with respect to the civil authority, and that is to pray for kings and those in authority, as commanded in 1 Timothy 2:1-7. We need to remember this in our sharing time, and in our worship together.
Does the Church have a prophetic function like Amos and Jeremiah, to call a wavering civil authority back to its God ordained purpose? I think yes, and I think no. Our mission today with respect to the civil authority is not the same as that of the Old Covenant prophets who were sent as messengers of the covenant to call the kings and the people of God back to covenant obedience, back to the fulfillment of their covenant obligation before YHWH. The clearer analogy of this Old Covenant prophetic-type ministry today would be God raising up a person within the church to call God’s people – now the Church – back to covenant faithfulness. A present day Amos would most likely be found proclaiming a message within the assembly of God’s people.
But the Old Covenant prophets also spoke against the surrounding nations – particularly, but not exclusively, about how they treated God’s people. Thus I would think that within boundaries the Church as a Church could possibly also make a moral plea to the nations to turn back from oppression and persecution and evil. Similarly, a church could present a moral case to the king or president or whomever.
Sometimes I wish Jesus and Paul had spoken more directly to our situation living in a participative constitutional republic. But we have to do the best we can figuring it out, using general biblical principles to chart a course. I think that the best way to approach the Church’s relation to the State is by pondering the mission of the Church as given in Scripture, and specifically I mean the stated mission of the New Covenant Church. If we peruse the New Testament what would we discover the church is to be about?
Well, there is the great commission in Matthew 28, the depiction of the early assembly in Jerusalem in Acts 2 and 4, the instructions about worship in the epistles (as in 1 Cor 12-14), the one another commandments, the narratives of how the various churches engaged in mission all through Acts, etc.. From these we could suggest the following.
The church, the ekklesia, the assembly, is both to go as witnesses, and to send forth witnesses to proclaim the truth about Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:18; Acts 1:8; Acts 13:1-3
The church is to make disciples, which includes baptizing and teaching disciples to obey all Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:18).
The church is to gather together regularly (Hebrews 10:25, Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 14:23).
The church is to pray (Acts 1:12-14;2:42-47; 1 Tim. 2:8), to sing (Col. 3:16-17; Eph. 5:19-20), to attend to the apostles teaching (Acts 2:42f; Acts 11:25-26), to participate in the Lord’s supper (Acts 2:42-47; 1Cor. 11:17-34; Luke 22:7-23).
The church is to show the reality of Jesus in its unity and love for one another (John 13:34;17:23; Col. 3:14)
The church is to share possessions one to another (Acts 2:44-45; Acts 4:32-35).
The church is to pray for those in authority (1 Tim 2:1-2)
The church is to give thanks (Eph. 5:20)
The church is to exercise discipline ( 1 Cor. 5:1-5; 2 Thes. 3:14-15).
The church is to be engaged in a mutual one-to-another spiritual-gift-sharing ministry (Rom. 12:3-8; Eph. 4:7-13; 1 Cor. 12)
Now I am not going to argue that we can only do as a Church what is specifically commanded, for theoretically things arise in history which may call the Church forth to a new element of its mission. Nevertheless, the biblical portrait does suggests some things about how we as Church should and shouldn’t relate to the State in a modern democratic republic.
Christian people relate not only to Church as an entity, but also to other institutions. We are citizens of heaven, and that is our most precious identity. But we are not just citizens of heaven. We are also citizens of the nation in which we live. Paul was a Roman citizen, and he felt very free to take proper advantage of the rights that afforded him; although I must add, that in his case, he took advantage of these rights only when he needed to better serve God in the mission of spreading the gospel.
We are not only citizens in a theoretical sense, but we live in a certain culture, a certain society, around certain neighbors and work mates etc., and we have certain specific obligations as witnesses, as redeemed creatures, in these places. We are to be a certain way toward “outsiders” (Col. 4:5; 1 Thes. 4:12; 1 Tim. 3:7; 1 Cor. 5:9-11; 1 Cor 10:27; 1 Cor 14:24; Phil. 2:14-15; 1 Peter 2:12; 1 Peter 3:15-16), so that God will be glorified in our lives, and the cause of the gospel enhanced. We are as Christians to love and serve others. We do this in our jobs. We do this in our associations. It is good to be a part of neighborhood associations, PTA groups, Scouts, etc. In these spheres of life we are to be salt and light, to be and act a certain way for Christ’s sake – for the sake of the gospel. We live today in a missionary setting. We must act and live in such a way that will not hinder the gospel message.
The Christian should be involved in “politics” to a certain extent, (just as he or she should be involved in PTA or neighborhood associations), if for no other reason than that of love for his neighbor. Seeking the good of the community suggests a self sacrificial political involvement for the sake of the well being of others, specifically those who are weak and unable to look after their own interests. Sadly, much political involvement is self-oriented. It amounts to lobbying for personal interests. I do not think this is the best motive for political involvement for the Christian. I am not fond of seeing Christian lobbying groups looking after “Christian” interests. That might be the only way to play the game these days, but it strikes me as being somewhat unseemly and inappropriate.
Political involvement can also proceed from a motive of seeking to restore a body politic to its “proper function.” There is a proper ideological aspect to political involvement. Sadly, however, ideologues, even those who are theologically and morally biblical in their views, rarely have political success, for they do not properly respect the realities of the political process and the need for compromise in a pluralistic culture. They appear sometimes as bullies, and even as cry babies, who, if they can’t get their way, choose not to play at all. They usually lose elections and end up with nothing. There is little biblical precedent for the kind of critical, negative, “purist” approach to overturning the incumbent civil authority. Jesus and Paul seemed much more tolerant of political realities than many today. I think they were more respectful of the nature of sin, and had more realistic expectations. They were not the least inclined toward Utopian fantasies of how godly and Christian a country might be, as are some today. Their perspective seemed very much tempered by the reality of sin. Nevertheless, I think they would have encouraged those in churches to be engaged in the process, if they had had the freedom to do so, as we do today.
Thus, it would appear to me that part of what it means to teach disciples to “obey all I have commanded you” has to do with teaching them to be engaged in the process of life in the body-politic. This is part ( and only a part, even a small part) of the Christian’s total discipleship, his or her service for Christ in the world. This is part of the Christian’s responsibility to take care of the earth, to exercise dominion, to love his or her neighbor. Thus, the leaders of a church in their teaching ministry should encourage and help the Christian do this. The teaching to obey “all I have commanded” includes instruction about family life, about honoring parents, about work and vocation, about marriage and parenting, and about involvement in politics, etc..
But as I look at the mission of the Church proper, I do not see that it is the Church’s calling to be engaged in the political process per se. For that reason the gathering of the church in its corporate life is not the place for the Christian to seek to exercise his or her duty as a citizen of the body politic. The corporate gathering isn’t the place for urging people to vote for so and so. It isn’t the place to usher the troops to the polls, to request people to call representatives, to complain about elected officials, to whip up fear and hysteria about how terrible things are, to engage in debate about various candidates.
The corporate setting is the place for believers to pray for those in authority (i.e., incumbents), to pray for one another as citizens engaged in works of service in the world out there, occasionally to teach about the need to be so engaged, to teach about the attitudes and demeanor to carry into that engagement, and to preach, as part of the process of presenting the full counsel of God, about various moral issues facing individuals and the “body politic,” with the goal particularly that the gathered Christians themselves would walk obediently! The preaching of the law of God must include how that law can and should be applied and obeyed in different aspects of our lives, and should thus help the Christian act and think Christianly in all facets of life. This makes the Christian a more fully Christlike person, and enables him or her to bring blessing to the world, and to transform it in small but significant ways here and there.
But this kind of teaching should take its proper place within the overall mission of the church, which includes many other things, and many other concerns. It is easy to progress from the kind of teaching I have mentioned to suggesting to people how to vote, to organizing a letter writing campaign, to promoting a showing at a city council meeting. But in my judgment a line would have been crossed in so doing, and the church would be operating outside of its biblically mandated mission.
I have often heard people suggest that “if the church had gotten off its duff the last three decades, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in. If the church had done this; if the church had done that.” My response is, yes, if Christian citizens hadn’t been asleep then at least some of this wouldn’t have happened. To the extent that the church has promoted a fortress mentality and insulted itself from the big bad terrible world out there, to the extent that the church has promoted the development of its own cheap little second rate Christian-ghetto subculture and has thus taken itself out of conversation with the greater culture, to the extent that it has failed in its teaching to convince people that they are to be Christians all week, and are to be engaged in all aspects of life under Christ’s Lordship, to the extent that antinomian theology has convinced millions of Americans that they are Christians when they are not, then I agree with the point to some extent. But if by this the charge is that the church should have been organizing political resistance to this or that, I do not agree at all.
The real problem isn’t that the church hasn’t been doing what it shouldn’t have been doing (organizing letter campaigns to Congressmen, etc.), but that it hasn’t been doing what it should have been doing. What the church should seek to be is the church! If we really had 60 million born again biblical Christians in America we wouldn’t have many of the problems we have. We would have some of them. We would have problems even if every person in the country were a born again Christian! But we certainly wouldn’t have the level of moral decline we have now. So, Church of Jesus Christ, fulfill the mission! Devote yourselves to prayer! Be holy as God is holy! Make disciples! Love one another! Worship God! Proclaim the gospel! Be hospitable! Give to one another! Pray for those in authority! Seek ye first the kingdom of God! Attend to the apostles teaching! Be servants in the world! Go forth into the world, and be Christians there! Be in the world!
Go over the list above. Is Covenant Fellowship fulfilling the mission of the church? If not, then it must. Help it to do so. Pray for it. Let us do well our biblically stated mission. Let us concentrate on that, and we will have done well.
Many of us are way more passionate about the kingdoms of men than the kingdom of God. We care more about the kingdom of America than the kingdom of Jesus. We spend more time listening to political pundits than we spend studying our Bibles or understanding the ways of the kingdom of God. We are more emotionally distraught by our candidate’s fall in the polls than by the decline of interest in the biblical gospel. We invest more real emotional human hope in a change in the political landscape than we do in the grace to be revealed when Jesus is revealed. We believe the ultimate purpose of the ministry of the church is to make the country a better place to raise a family. We don’t much believe in heaven and hell anymore, which means that we easily replace the gospel of Christ with a gospel of conservatism or liberalism or whatever.
At the root of it we are very worldly. We are not seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. We see a moral decline and the loss of moral/spiritual moorings, a rising paganism, and we are afraid. So we have created a very worldly alternative culture, an alternative Christianized and sanitized version of the American dream. This alternative culture is, at the same time, both worldly and anti-culture. Both are wrong. The combination is deadly.
The alternative culture is worldly in two ways. First, it is just about as materialistic and greedy and market driven as the surrounding culture. Second, it is inclined to focus over-much on earthly agendas and political processes as solutions to spiritual and moral problems.
The alternative culture is anti-culture in the sense that it has abandoned and written off the larger general culture, except to lob criticisms and complaints over the walls. Its focus is on winning the culture war, and by doing that not by Daniel-like prayer, not by self sacrificial service, and not by truly distinctive behavior, but by power wrought through political activity. By this means it wants to replace the surrounding culture with its own ostensibly superior evangelical culture.
In the past, one way to deal with surrounding pagan culture was to withdraw altogether and create a truly alternative culture, and more or less unworldly culture, as the Amish have done. Through this approach, the Amish have managed to maintain their integrity and cultural distinctiveness as they await the return of their Savior. Another approach has been simply to accommodate to the culture and become almost completely like it and lost in it, as Christians in America typically have over the last 100 years. A third approach in the last three decades has been to create an alternative semi-removed separate modern culture with its own music and books and films. Within this approach are those who just don’t care about the surrounding culture, and those who fight for takeover of the larger culture. This alternative culture is morally much more like the surrounding culture than it would admit. This is American evangelical culture today.
There is a fourth approach, one I think which was advocated by Jesus Himself. This approach is that of self sacrificial engagement in human society by people who are in the world but who truly walk to the beat of a different drummer, people who seek like Abraham, another kingdom, who live out the ethics of that kingdom, who are morally pure, who are different in their meekness and patience and love and kindness, who work for the betterment of the lives of their neighbors, who look not after their own interests, who behave toward outsiders in a way than earns their respect, who are willing to die for their Lord, who “sympathize with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of their property, because they know that they themselves have better and lasting possessions.” These people go out as sheep amongst wolves ready to be devoured if need be. These people love and pray for their enemies. They lay up for themselves treasures in heaven. They don’t care about status and prestige and what neighborhood they live in. They eat with gentiles and sinners. They mix it up with the grime of the world and stay pure and unstained. They are hospitable to saints and sinners alike. They take the gospel to the hurting. They live out the “ethics of the kingdom.” Kingdom-of-God Christians love one another with a love that surprises many in the world. They are more concerned with God’s honor than their own honor.
All involvement by Christians in the political process should be in keeping with these kingdom ethics, period, no matter who scoffs at this as impractical or idealistic. All engagement of kingdom people in the political process should be seen as service, and not just service to a Christian minority, but service to their unchristian neighbor, to the oppressed, to the needy, to the general good of the people. The kingdom-of-God Christian seeks the good of the city, and one of the many ways to do this is by an appropriate political involvement.
So I say, yes, by all means, be engaged in the political process as a part of your Christian duty and service. But be involved not with a we-verses-them attitude, but with an attitude of love and service to your neighbors and countrymen. Go to your enemies and try to befriend them. Find common ground with them if you can. Pray for them. Love them. Do not be over surprised by evil. It’s not going to go away with a change in the administration. Work hard to change things, always with a good spirit, and trust God. Pray.
And all the while don’t lose sight of greater priorities, kingdom priorities, and the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ. It is not the mission of the Church to engage in the political process. Period. It is part of the mission of the Christian citizen to do this, for the right reasons, but not the church as a corporate body. So in the next six months as the campaign wears on (and on and on and on....) we will continue to pray for those in authority over us. We will continue to try to fulfill our mission as a Church, an ekklesia, a local assembly of believers. If we can fulfill that mission better and better with God’s blessing upon us, then there will be spill over positive impact on our culture, even though that is not the first reason for fulfilling our mission.
We won’t as a church, for reasons I hope you understand, promote candidates, use the sharing time to urge people to vote for so and so, organize letter writing campaigns, mobilize the troops. We won’t distribute literature about candidates and their voting records.
We will encourage involvement in the process. We will pray for our leaders. And we will not hold back preaching about moral and ethical matters, teaching you, disciples of Jesus, to obey all he has commanded. We will not be afraid to make application of biblical/moral principles to real life and even to public life issues, whenever this is appropriate. We will encourage you to talk to one another, to seek wisdom from one another, about how we as Christians are to be engaged. But we encourage you to do this one to another with grace and with a teachable spirit. Because of the power of example, I am thinking hard about how I as Christian citizen should and shouldn’t engage in the process. Pray for me.
I hope these thoughts are helpful.
The Christian and the State: III
My country, Tis somewhat of Thee
On the 3rd. day of August in the year 1957 God saw fit to have me born in Columbia South Carolina, United States of America. At no time did He consult with me about His decision to do this. I had no say in the matter whatsoever.
I have an unending affection for the animals, plants, smells, weather, and "mood" of my hometown and homestate. I love its history, jaded as it is. I am a South Carolinian, through and through. I am also an American. I have traveled North and South, East and West across our country. I have read its history, I have seen and felt many of its special places. It is in me. I have lived in and learned to love other nations, and could live out my days in another place. But American I am. And I love her, I do. I am also an Earthling. I love God's world. I love the diversity of nations. My life is ever more connected with the lives of those in far away places.
Now I am a Christian. I am a Christian, a follower of Jesus, who happens to be an Earthling, an American, a South Carolinian. I am an American Christian, not a Christian American. I am as equally averse to wrapping the flag in the church as I am to denouncing all things Western and American.
Strictly and formally speaking, America is not and has never been a Christian nation. I do not even know what being a Christian nation could look like unless we scrapped our constitution, established some sort of monarchy, and hoped that it would be different from all others in history and not slip into cruel tyranny, and hoped that the populace became and remained real God-fearing, Spirit regenerated, Christ-like human beings. This is not likely. The Scripture nowhere gives me any confidence that anything like what I would call a Christian nation is either possible or likely. So, ours is not a Christian nation. It is rather a nation with lots of Christians, sometimes less, sometimes more, who sometimes have more, and sometimes less influence upon her. It is true, and must not be forgotten, that God has used and is using the Christians of America in significant ways in the world. American Christians have profoundly helped the spreading of the gospel to the nations. I am thankful for this. I am thankful that our secular, pluralistic constitution gives us the freedom to do this. I hope it will continue. It is also true that in His providence God has also used America's industrial and commercial and moral strength to help stave off domination of the world by both rightist and leftist forms of totalitarianism. I am proud of this as well.
America was established on the foundation of its hatred of tyranny and totalitarianism, its love of freedom, religious freedom, yes, but also moral and economic freedom. This produced a constitution which offers protection against tyranny and checks and balances in its government. Our constitution lays the groundwork for a secular and pluralistic government. Thus, ours is by definition not a Christian but a secular nation. It is not a theocracy, it is not a "Christian monarchy." Frankly, I'm glad. That sort of thing is precisely what caused the Pilgrims and many others to flee to America in the first place. As a Christian I am glad I live in a secular nation. As a Christian, I am glad for our Founding Father's fear of monarchy and tyranny.
The Pilgrims and others like them who came to the various states had a vision for a new society, and new Israel, a new Eden. Such a vision was understandable given the long history of war and persecution in England and Europe. Nevertheless, it was somewhat dubious, or shall I say, utopian. Inevitably it had to run into the reality of both its own internal sinfulness and the external forces which did not share the specifics of its vision. The widespread hatred of State establishment of religion, shared in many ways by the various Christian entities within the colonies, of necessity would eventually place limits upon the ability of these Christian entities to govern themselves separately. They would be thrown into the pot of the individual colonial governments, and eventually the governments of the various states in the union. In a fallen world, religious freedom goes hand in hand with pluralism and secular government.
Our constitution is a very dangerous thing. It places into the hands of fallen men and women the power of representative government. Our Founding Fathers, some Christians, some Deists, some Enlightenment rationalists, feared the loss of the moral compass. They knew that at least some notion of God and "natural law" was necessary to keep the freedom granted from resulting in mob rule or moral anarchy. Even when the notion of representation works right (that is, when powerful interests are not controlling the legislatures in all they ways they do that so well), the values that drive the people who seek to be represented will drive those that represent them. But the constitution does not and cannot guarantee what these values will be. It does not establish the core values which define the people of the nation. It grants tremendous freedom to people without in any way being able to determine what that freedom will lead them to do, except in the ways it protects minority rights against majority wishes, and protects the people against governmental tyranny. This is scary, and risky, and our Fathers knew it, and did what they could to hedge their bets in the way they structured our constitution.
The core American value, put forward in our Declaration and guranteed in our Constitution, that is, the value which I would call liberty or freedom, is not an inherently Christian value. But it does grant to Christians the right to live out their Christian life in peace and freedom. It gives Christians the right to bring influence to bear upon the nation, and to share about their religious convictions with others. These are precious rights that we all cherish. But America can and will have a Christian "look and feel" only to the extent that the values of a great many of its people are really and truly Biblical Christian values. The problem I see today is that there is a confusion between what I call Christian values and American values. These are not today the same. I don't think they ever were, nor do I think they can ever be in any total sense. And even if more and more people became sold out to Biblical values, ours is still, and must remain, a secular nation. No matter how many of us are Biblical Christians, there is a necessary limit to how that translates into government and policy matters. One assumes that our culture and our laws would become more humane, more just, and more peaceable. But even if true Biblical Christians were a majority, the constitution would protect those of other religions and of no religion from domination by the Christian majority. It has to be that way. I'm glad, really, because I never see Biblical Christians being more than a small minority, and thus I appreciate the protections afforded me by our constitution.
The reason I don't see the majority of Americans becoming Biblical Christians is because Scripture tells me it's unlikely, because Scripture tells me what people are like in their fallenness, and because I see the power of the values of the dominant culture, what have become in fact the working American values, being so deep, so ingrained, so unshakable barring the most unbelievable work of God upon us, leading us to the most historically profound repentance ever seen in a nation.
But even if the majority of the people became Biblical Christians, they would not agree with each other on the specifics of public policy. And even if they did, their influence would only be limited, because in truth the notion of representation does not work nearly so well as thought. What guides a nation's policies ultimately are the power brokers, the corporations, the extremely wealthy, the entrenched career well-bribed politicians. It may sound silly and cynical to say so, but money and power rule: money and power drive policy. So even if the values of the majority were really and truly Biblical Christian values, unless there was a systematic profound revival at the level of the powers-that-be, the values of the small-people majority would only so much determine national policy. The forces of greed, conquest, and power have always been guiding forces, during and since the initial colonization by the Spanish, French, English, and Dutch. From the beginning the colonies were pawns in the competitive visions of these nations. The pilgrims and those like them were just a small bit of the mix in a big pot, and were even themselves being used by others for political and economic purposes. The drive for wealth and conquest and power, those forces which keep the sea in Daniel 7 stirred up and tumultuous, these have always been the most powerful, even in our own nation's settling and founding.
For American Christians the problem has never been so much totalitarianism as cultural assimilation, assimilation to the culture's dominant values. This is probably more true today than ever, but it has always been the case. I have read many accounts of early American Puritans, within a few years of colonization, of how afraid and concerned they were that their children and neighbors were being taken away by the allure of wealth and commerce. This assimilation to non-Christian values has always in our history been the bigger problem. When we combine this with the profound intellectual shift that has occurred since the Enlightenment, no wonder the dominant culture's values are out of whack.
What are these dominant values today? What are those root principles which drive the American machine today? What does it mean to have "arrived" in America today. What makes up the "life vision" of most Americans today. What do we hope for, long for, expect, desire above all else? If someone were seeking the modern-day dream of America, what is it he or she would be seeking? Before I try to answer that question, let me ask another question. When Jesus said "seek first the kingdom of God, and its righteousness," what did he mean? How might you contrast what he meant by asking us to seek the kingdom and what our culture wants us to seek today? Answering that would be a good exercise. I encourage you to think about that.
I see many Christians today so worried about persecution or loss of rights, while all along they buy into the dominant culture's value system. Assimilation is the enemy of the church in America today, not persecution. Here we have the freedom to be as much like Jesus as we want to be, and we are not choosing to do so. We are using our freedom to follow the values path of the surrounding world, and then getting mad when we fear the loss of some freedom we are not taking advantage of anyway. Yes, we should work to keep the playing field even, and to protect the legitimate rights of Christian Americans, but let us not think this is the main battle.
I call us all to think hard, to work hard at figuring out, to pray and seek God, that we can know just what we are to be like as His representatives today, in this day and time. We must of course stay engaged in matters of public policy. We must vote, We must seek laws that are good and just and fair to all. We must seek the good of our country. But we must make the hard private decisions which would make us really like Jesus in matters of lifestyle, priorities, decisions, attitudes. We must talk about what it means for us to seek first the kingdom. We are pilgrims. We are here for a while and then gone. How are we to be while we are here?