By / Jan 26

Editor’s Note: Canon & Culture is beginning 2015 with a Symposium on Statecraft and political theology featuring six essays from Research Fellows of the ERLC’s Research Institute.

Since World War II, the Supreme Court has performed a stunning reduction to absurdity on a misreading of the First Amendment, particularly the Establishment Clause. What was intended originally to block the establishment of a national church, such as you have in the UK and Denmark, has been turned into a witch hunt against any official manifestation of special respect for the Judeo-Christian perspective.

Unfortunately, until 1990, the SBC was party to much of this through its alliance with the ecumenical Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, and, by extension, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, hand in glove with the ACLU on these matters. By breaking ties with the BJCPA and bolstering the program of the Christian Life Commission, now the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the SBC manifested the change early on with its amicus brief supporting the right of a Rhode Island middle school to invite a rabbi pray at graduation exercises (Lee v. Weisman, 1992).

While every US president has made respectful reference to God in at least one inaugural address; while presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adam endorsed before Congress Christian missions to the Indians; while Franklin Roosevelt wrote an admiring foreword to the WWII-era New Testament published by the Government Printing Office, we now count as received wisdom Justice Fortas’s claim in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), that the “First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.”

What then is foundational to our national framework if not recognition of “our Creator,” as Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence? With what shall we order ourselves if we dismiss Justice Douglas’s statement in Zorach v. Clauson (1952): “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”

I submit that we’ve crowned feelings, and thereby have enthroned a new right, the right to not be offended, to not feel marginalized or stigmatized – that is, unless you cling to your insistence that Judeo-Christian perspectives are worthy of special respect. Thus, by the Court’s machinations, we’re become a nation without metaphysics, but only therapeutics. I call it “therapeutic nihilism,” to which the following cases have contributed.

Regarding Psychological Harm to the Children

In School District of Abington Township v. Schempp (1963), the Supreme Court worried with Roger Schempp that his kids would come off as “odd balls” if they refused to listen to the daily Bible reading, with a state court that they would suffer a “religious stigma,” and with a rabbi, that they could suffer psychological harm “if portions of the New Testament were read without explanation.”

But where does the court trouble itself over the feelings of young-earth-creationist kids who are told their convictions are hogwash in Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005)? What if a student at B. Bernice Young Elementary School in Burlington Township, New Jersey, had refused, post-2008-election, to sing “Mmm, Mmm, Mmm! Barack Hussein Obama”? What about the obese kids who feel stigmatized by the first lady’s dietetic crusade? The peace-church kids who ask to be excused from a reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Concord Hymn (“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard round the world.”)? The Hindu kid who shows up with a red dot on her forehead? The benighted youth who keeps his seat when the assembly speaker delivers some gaseous falsehood generating a standing ovation? How about their “stigmatization”? Not a word from the Court.

Regarding Nefarious Motives and Aspirations

In Romer v. Evans (1996), Justice Kennedy said, regarding the Colorado law against gay behavior, “Its sheer breadth is so discontinuous with the reasons offered for it that the amendment seems inexplicable by anything but animus toward the class that it affects…” He picked up on the same notion to knock down the Defense of Marriage Act in U.S. v. Windsor (2013).

So do the courts reject noble-sounding free press cases when they decide the defendant really just wants to keep publishing disgusting material to corrupt the youth of the land? Do they chase immigration lawyers out of court when they determine that, down deep, they only care about bolstering the voting base of a political party? Where does this sort of divining end?

Regarding the Outsider Complex

In County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter (1989), a dissenting Justice O’Connor said that allowing a crèche and menorah on courthouse grounds “sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community . . .”

But when I pastored in Evanston, Illinois, the Chicago suburb with the most gay households, and preached the clear message of Romans 1, I never sensed that the courts had my back if this cost me standing in the community or hurt my political prospects should I choose to run for office. In a city which tossed the Boy Scouts out of the United Way for its reluctance to appoint homosexual scoutmasters, I had no reason to think I’d be appreciated for my beliefs or invited to tony parties, but it never occurred to me to get a lawyer to remedy that.

The Liberty of Stigmatizing Stigmatizers

What we’ve forgotten is that we are properly a land of stigmatizing stigmatizers. It used to be said that my freedom to extend my arm ended at your nose. Now it seems that my freedom to criticize your behavior ends at your feelings. We’ve substituted speech codes for physical behavior codes and introduced hate crimes to augment real crimes. We’re beginning to lose the rough and tumble of argument which keeps free societies free. Ours had been a nation where I may excoriate pederasty and be excoriated for my “puritanical” perspective; where I may vilify military appeasement and, in turn, be vilified for my warmongering; where I may call the governor an adulterer and he may call me a meddling zealot.

Judicial Pushback

Justice Scalia deserves special praise for pushing back against therapeutic nihilism: Rebuking the majority opinion in Romer v. Evans, he shot back, “The Court has mistaken a Kulturkampf [“culture struggle”] for a fit of spite.” In his dissent from Edwards v. Aguillard(1987), he wrote, regarding a balanced-treatment rule regarding evolution, “The questions of its constitutionality cannot rightly be disposed of on the gallop, by impugning the motives of its supporters.” In his dissent from the Weisman decision, with its talk of psychological coercion, Scalia wrote, sarcastically, “Perhaps further intensive psychological research remains to be done on these matters.”

The Chimera of Neutrality

Michigan State’s Frank Ravitch (our SBTS church-state textbook’s editor) has written, “Like the tooth fairy, neutrality is just a myth, but like children who want the tooth fairy to visit, we want it to be real or at least for something to stand in for it to make us believe it is real.” Well, actually, neutrality is a dangerous stance, no more desirable than possible. To quote William James, belief in God is a live, forced, and momentous option for individuals, and I would suggest that it extends to governments as well.

I think of journalistic objectivity, another impossibility. While, of course, you wish the press to give fair reading to the issues, you hardly want newspapermen who think there is a moral equivalency between NAMBLA and the Red Cross, who aren’t sure if the birth of mongrel puppies under a house on Oak Street is more important than the mayor’s embezzling a million dollars. You have to be coming from somewhere. Similarly, states are coming from or going toward somewhere. And, in that connection, it is critical where those starting points and destinations might be.

Pre-emptive Disestablishment

We hear a lot of over-heated talk about the establishment of religion when government gives slightest nod to the Judeo-Christian perspective, but I think preemptive disestablishment is more to the point. We need to take a via negativa, avoiding deference to such faiths as Hinduism, with its caste system; Islam, with its sharia-driven dhimmitude; Animism, with its indifference to science, its worship of nature and overweening superstition; Buddhism, with its irrationality and self-absorption; Atheism, where humanity arbitrarily definable and morally unaccountable; Shintoism, with its ancestor worship; Cults, with their sexual adventurism; Utopianism, with its love of tyranny; Scientism, which spawned eugenics; Rationalism, which yields radically divergent conclusions depending upon the premises: “garbage in garbage out.”

Discursive Judeo-Christianism

Rather, we need a nation giving special honor to the Judeo-Christian perspective – not to establish a church, for there is no such denomination, but to recognize, following the Bible, that man is made in God’s image (Red and Yellow, Black and White . . . and, yes, developmentally disabled persons . . . All are Precious in His Sight); that man in fallen (necessitating checks and balances and term limits); that licit marriage is between one man and one woman (hence DOMA); that people are free to follow their consciences, for membership in the family of God is based not on coercion, but on belief, which cannot be coerced.

On this model, we would continue to have White House and Capitol Christmas tree lightings (where, this year, the speaker honored “Christ” by name) – and not White House animal sacrifices at the behest of Muslims, Samhain festivities for the Wiccans, a Vesak ceremony to honor Buddha’s birth, or drumming and dancing for fellowship with Santerian Orishas. (Of course, we should be ready to celebrate the contributions of individual American Muslims and Hindus, but this is not to celebrate Islam and Buddhism per se.)

It means that we will print Christmas and Hannukah stamps but not Eid stamps. For one thing, it recognizes our history, for if Wahabis or Brahmans, if Shamans or Imams, had landed on Plymouth Rock, we would have a very different, indeed unrecognizable, nation.

This position is “discursive” since it honors reason, a creation order, and natural law. It continuously hears from everybody, for it is fearful of blind spots and of parading about in “emperor’s new clothes.” It works with the conviction that lost and saved alike have access to conscience (Romans 2:14-15), observation, and logic. For those who count religion irrational, I would point them to the virtual festival of fallacies displayed by the “anti-establishment” extremists – from ad hominem (“animus”) to ad misericordiam (the “outsider” feeling), to false dichotomy (“neutrality or tyranny”), to slippery slope (school prayer leading to pogroms).

Winsome Not So Old World, Circa 1950

What sort of ruinous theocracy am I suggesting? Basically, the sort of America we had around 1950. Before Lyndon Johnson finessed a pulpit-binding rider to an IRS bill, one limiting political speech. Before it was illegal for the Gideons to distribute Bibles to school kids. And in the day when Pastor George Truett, a champion of religious liberty, could still deliver a baccalaureate address at Texas A&M.

But what of Muslims in Montgomery Country Maryland who pressed for a school Eid holiday along with Christmas and Rosh Hashannah? How can they endure such discriminatory policy? How can they find peace in a land which shows so little regard for their religion? For them, liberty is not enough; they desire parity.

I think it is good to remind them that many of them have come from lands where Christians were denied full religious liberty, much less parity, and that they did not distinguish themselves by objecting to these policies. But it is also good to point out that people from all faiths and climes have flocked to this “insensitive” land, discovering that there is no safer place on earth for religious minorities than an American town where a local preacher prays “in Jesus’ name” from the press box at the Friday night football game.

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.

By / Jan 21

Editor’s Note: Canon & Culture is beginning 2015 with a Symposium on Statecraft and political theology featuring six essays from Research Fellows of the ERLC’s Research Institute.

Introduction

I have been asked to take part in this symposium on politics and statecraft by giving some thought to the question “using your political imagination, what would an ideal polity look like from a Christian perspective?”  I have to confess, politics is not my area of specialization, especially if by “polity” we mean discussing the particular functions and inner-workings of governmental structures.  If on the other hand, we mean by “polity” the foundational ideas behind why we need government and the end purposes of government, then my wheels churn with delight.  Thus, in this brief essay my thoughts and imaginations will run in that direction.

My hope is that by exploring a few key Biblical texts that I believe should shape our “political imagination”, we can gain some perspective not only on the foundation and purposes of government, but in so doing perhaps we can also highlight some points of emphasis a government ought always to keep central.

The working premise of this essay is this: The foundation of government is the very nature of God. Government is not merely something God wills for His creation; rather it is a reflection of His own perfection.  As such, government is a gift of God that reflects his very nature and it is meant to order and guide humans (both individually and corporately) and the entire created realm into a flourishing existence that maximizes the glory of God.

In order to pursue this idea I will discuss the nature of government through a fourfold paradigm of creation, fall, redemption and restoration.

Creation: Government in a Pre-Fall World – (2 Key Points)
Government is not a result of the Fall

A common misconception I run into when teaching beginning ethics and philosophy students is that government is a product of necessity that emerges in a fallen world.  Perhaps this is because public education in the United States emphasizes the enlightenment social contract theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.  But when one considers the creation passages throughout the Scriptures one realizes that government existed prior to the creation of the cosmos in the person of God himself and was clearly present in the Garden of Eden prior to the Fall.

Indeed, it is a core Christian doctrine that the God of the universe eternally pre-exists as one God in three persons who express their relation with each other in perfect harmony or “self-governance.”  From this perfect self-governing nature of God, the holy Trinity spills forth the created order in all of its glorious splendor.  Far from a chaotic mass of floating atoms randomly coalescing into chance forms, the universe displays God’s glory as He governs the constellations, stars and planets in their heavenly courses (Ps. 19:1, Job 38).

And of course, not only does God govern the heavens, the opening two chapters of the Bible also indicate that government was present in the Garden of Eden prior to the fall.   In Genesis 2:15 the Scriptures indicate that God placed Adam in the garden and gave him a specific function to cultivate and keep the garden.  As part of his benevolent governing, God gave commandments to Adam. God told Adam that from any tree in the garden he may freely eat but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil Adam should not eat.  In other words, a rule of law existed in the Garden.  Similarly, in Genesis 1:26 we read that God created mankind in his image and then put Adam and Eve in a ruling position over the fish of the sea, birds of the sky and over all the creatures on the earth.  Further, in Genesis 1:28 we see that God commissioned the first humans to “rule” and “subdue” the created order as God’s loving stewards ruling in His name.

One might stop at this point and ask, “If the world God created was without sin, why did non-fallen human beings need government?” One of the clearest answers is that finite creatures are not ends in themselves.  They are not self-created and thus they do not determine their own purpose or telos.  They derive their purpose and telos from their creator.  And for this reason God offered government to them as a form of guidance by which they could:

Have and enjoy life to its fullest measure in line with the manner in which he designed them;
Experience liberty in line with their created nature and the fabric of the universe;
Flourish in an ever increasing happiness as they pursue the end for which they were created.

And of course, as we learn from the Scriptures, humans exist to bring God glory in everything that they do (Col. 3:17, I Cor. 10:31).

In other words, prior to the fall, all creatures, because they are creatures, still needed to be pointed in the right direction and guided in the pursuit of their highest end. God gave non-fallen human beings a spiritual and moral compass that would point them toward their “true north” for flourishing and the blessed shalom God built them for.

By way of application, then, we can see that a fundamental point of emphasis for any type of polis, would be a proper understanding how rule of law aligns with perfect freedom.  And by “freedom” we must not think of some anemic, self-absorbed version of personal liberty that seeks a minimization of accountability.  Rather, an ideal polity recognizes any and all laws ultimately should seek to align persons with the created purposes of God.   An ideal government would function under laws that are clearly in line with the created nature of both persons and the universe because such laws would also be in line with the purposes of the One who created persons and the universe.  Freedom is not autonomy in which humans create their own laws of self-determination, but discovery of the purposes of human existence and laws that govern the proper freedom of movement toward that purposes for which they were created.

Human Purpose: Worship and Fill the Earth with Worship

Another question that seems to arise from the creation account is, “Why were humans placed in a position of governing authority over the rest of the creation order?”  God placed humans in a role of authority over the rest of the creation order because God created humans uniquely in His image. And as His image bearers they were meant to be His representatives towards the rest of the created order, as well as representatives of the created order back to God.  In other words, they were given a role of headship over the creation to represent God to the rest of the created order, yet they were also embedded in the creation order so that they could represent the creation order and lead it in giving worship back to God.

From this position of  “embedded headship” Adam and Ever were instructed to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and rule over it.  God put them in this position so that the entirety of the creation order would not only be filled with the glory of God through their governance of it, but as they lovingly subdued it, the glory of God would be maximized throughout the entire created order. In other words, God placed government in the garden and gave humans an embedded headship so that as His special agents they could govern the created order so that the whole world would be filled with his glory as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14).

Again, by way of application, we can see that an ideal form of government would enact law and policy that would seek primarily to accomplish God’s “Genesis Great Commission” in which the entire created order renders unto God the maximum amount of worship and glory that it is possible for a finite world to offer its Creator.

Fall: Government in  Fallen World 
The “Embedded Head” has Fallen

Given these lofty ideas relating to the foundation and purpose of government in mind, clearly the fall of Adam and Eve into sin is nothing short of tragic.

The devastating personal, social and cosmic implications of this choice cannot be overstated.  Through their sin they broke their rightly ordered relationship with God.  As a result they became spiritually dead, separated from their maker, and destined for an eternity apart from his loving presence. In addition, the entire society and all of its institutions and structures would inevitably marred and distorted by sin.  Indeed, all of creation now groans in anticipation of a renewal that can only come at the hand of God Himself (Rom. 8:22).

One of the key elements to emphasize regarding how sin affects human systems of polity is the blinding that happens in relation to humans knowing their purpose for existence and their ultimate end.  They are no longer able to discover “true north.”  Consider the following passages:

Romans 1:18-23 tells us that although humans were created to know and be rightly related to God and proper knowledge of God is evident “within” us, as a people we “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” and we are left without excuse.

Eph. 4:17-19 tells us that in our sin we have become futile in our minds and “darkened in our understanding”

I Cor. 2:14 tells us that sinful humans in this natural state cannot understand the things of God and

thus His wisdom is no longer considered accepted among the lost.

The Limitations of Fallen Government

These negative epistemic effects of the Fall play a major role in the extent to which secular government can provide guidance and hope for humankind.  Because of our sin, even the best forms human government can only approximate the justice and virtue of God.  And separated from the clear orientation to “true north” even the best of human efforts to self-govern will only achieve what Augustine described as “splendid vices” (City of God ,19).  At worst our sinful depravity relegates us to Hobbesian contexts in which all humans exist in a state of nature in which we are all at war with each other resulting in lives best characterized as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes, Leviathanchpts. 13-14).

One of the saddest implications of this in the context of post-enlightenment Western society (and certainly modern U.S. culture) has been the shift from a “Golden Rule” ethic focused on love of God and neighbor, to the far inferior and anemic “Silver Rule” ethos that emphasizes personal autonomy and rights.  While in a fallen world it may not be wise to expect more, certainly we can rightly conclude that when a government focuses on the rights of the people to not be harmed instead of the duty to actively do good to our neighbor, we can be sure that the intended foundations of government have seriously eroded.  And thus, by way of application, we can assert that an ideal polis would emphasize not “personal rights” but “personal and communal duties” of neighbor love.

III. Redemption: Jesus as Immanuel

 Embedded Headship Restored

In spite of the bad news that relates to the fall of human beings and the effect of the fall on the ability of humans to govern themselves, it is through the gospel of Jesus Christ that human beings can still have hope.  For a while the first Adam sinned and chose self-government apart from the authority of God, it is through the Second Adam (Jesus Christ) that hope for proper government is fully inaugurated and finally anticipated.  When the Second Person of the Trinity took on human flesh through the incarnation He restored hope by becoming the “embedded head”  and sinless mediator who represents God to mankind and represents of all mankind before God.

Through the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ human beings can once again be properly aligned to “true north.” By his life, death, resurrection, and ascension Christ once again makes it possible for humans to experience:

Abundant life (John 10:10).
True liberty (John 8:36).
Happiness and flourishing as they pursue their final end for which they were created (Gal. 5:1).

Thus, through faith in Christ and by the filling of the Holy Spirit, humans now once again have a real basis for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

 Role of Government in the Now and Not Yet

And it is at this point that the question of government becomes very interesting indeed.   Because while the gospel of Jesus Christ does open up hope for humanity, not all humans place their faith in Christ and followers of Christ still live in a fallen world.  Thus, the lingering effects of sin still affect (and infect) both persons and the social structures we build. And thus while the kingdom of God has been inaugurated in Christ, we currently live in a time of now and not yet where we anticipate the final rule and reign of Christ. One might say we are living “between the times.”

In this time of the now and the not yet, Christians are called to be salt and light in an otherwise dark world (Matt 5). That is, by their presence they function as a preservative on the moral standing of culture and by their words and deeds they proclaim the hope of the Gospel.  But as such, Christians also abide as engaged “resident aliens” (I Peter 2:11) who honor their country and their governing authorities, but who recognize their loyalty to country is transcended by a more important authority; God himself.  By way of application, Christians should be the very best of citizens in any country that they reside.  But they must also recognize that no matter where or when they live, for them the Christian flag always flies higher than the flag of their home country.  Always.

But what about an ideal polis in this time of now and not yet?  Thankfully Romans 13 sheds some light on how an ideal government ought to understand itself and its role.

In particular Romans 13:4 describes government as a “minister” of God two times and repeats this description of government as a “minister” again in Romans 13:6.  The actual Greek word translated as “minister” is the word diakonos, or “deacon”.  That is, Paul is indicated that the Government of any country, in any time period, is supposed to serve as a “Deacon of God” to the people.  In other words, in an ideal world, government and governing authorities are tasked to take on a role of mediation between God and the people. Again, this is a form of “embedded headship” God has placed in the created order for the proper shepherding of the creation order.   Ideally, then it is the purpose of government is to serve the people in the name of God and not only restrain and avenge evil, but enable people in their proper response back to God.  Obviously fallen humans and fallen governmental structures will fail at this.  But this is the ideal: government was created by God to serve people toward the end of the entire cosmos properly worshipping Himself.

Restoration: 

Truly, this discussion sheds light on why the prophet Isaiah (9:6) indicates that the government must ultimately rest on the shoulders of the Messiah!  Only on Christ’s shoulders will government rightly order all things to the glory of God.

The great news for all believers in Jesus Christ, is that we will not always abide in a “time between the times.” We will not always live in the now and not yet.  There will come a day when Christ will return and all our imaginations about what the “ideal polity” looks like will be so utterly transcended that our best speculations will appear childishly simply by comparison.

Someday all governing and all authority will find is perfect consummation in the person of Jesus Christ.  Someday, the final and perfect expression of government will be experienced by all aspects of the created order.  As Scripture promises there will come a day when every tear will be wiped away, every injustice will be rectified, every wrong will be righted, and the “true north” for all creation will be finally established.

And in that day it will finally be clear to all people, indeed to the whole created order, that what was true in the beginning will be true forever more.   All will finally understand that government flows out of the glory of God and is meant to lead all of creation back to the glory of God.  That God created humans in such a way so to have life, liberty and happiness as they pursue the end for which they were created.  And that all can rest assured that the increase to the perfect government of Jesus Christ will have no end.

And in that day, and in that knowledge, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

For that day the Christian hopes and waits in joyful anticipation this day.  Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.

By / Jan 16

Editor’s Note: Canon & Culture is beginning 2015 with a Symposium on Statecraft and political theology featuring six essays from Research Fellows of the ERLC’s Research Institute.

There is no ideal polity, at least not in the way most Westerners would think about the matter. Following in the Greek tradition of Plato and Aristotle, democratic Westerners think in terms of one constitutional structure versus another, as in “Give us democracy, not monarchy!”

Yet the biblical worldview does not work this way. It idealizes no civil polity in abstraction, but evaluates every historical polity according to whether or not it accomplishes the task that God has set for civil governments in Genesis 9:5-6 (elaborated upon in Romans 13:1-7). The ideal polity, if we’re going to call it that, is one which renders judgment according to God’s understanding of right, thereby preserving and honoring all people made in his image and providing a platform for the redemptive work of his special people.

Under a certain set of cultural conditions, the institutions of a liberal democracy best accomplish these ends. But in some contexts they don’t. Democracy, like every other constitutional form, belongs in the category of prudence, not absolute principle.

That said, there is one polity form the Bible idealizes, but we’ll come to that in the conclusion.

Go Ahead And Preach To The Choir

The first thing Christians must recognize in writing about better and worse forms of government is that we must start by writing as Christians to Christians. This contradicts, I understand, what is patently obvious to several very smart friends of mine. They insist, as many do, that Christians should theorize about government and justice in a manner that is “publicly accessible.” If your theory of government cannot convince the majority of non-Christians, what good is it?

Yet their argument is not only pragmatic. Too, they might appeal to natural law, or common grace, or to government as a creation ordinance. Government is for everybody—Christian and non—so we should make arguments for everybody, right?

I agree there is time to make publicly accessible arguments. But if you start here, you will trade away the terms of the conversation. No one actually builds a theory of government and justice apart from their basic worldview commitments, and if you pretend that you can, you will simply let someone else’s basic commitments define the conversation. It’s better and more honest to start by acknowledging your basic commitments, to ask others to do the same, and then to figure out how make the constitutional and policy implications of your own commitments persuasive and accessible.

All that to say, any conversation between Christians about the ideal form of polity must first be a deeply biblical one.

The Problem With Idealizing Any Form Of Government

What then does the Bible say about the ideal form of civil government? Absolutely nothing. To then argue for one form over another goes where God has not gone.

Genesis 9:5-6 provides the original charter for civil government. Three times in verse 5 God says he will require a reckoning for the life-blood of a human being. The fact of government is not grounded in consent, but in what God requires. Verse 6 then articulates the basic principle of governance and justice: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

Humankind remained wicked after the flood. God determined to stay his own hand of judgment and let history continue. Still, he established a human mechanism for preventing the Cains from killing the Abels, thereby establishing a modicum of peace and order. In Genesis 9:5-6, God therefore authorizes humans to wield the sword to render judgment for crimes against other humans.

What’s interesting, however, is that this text says absolutely nothing about how governments should be formed. By military conquest? Inheritance? Democratic agreement? Those are the three basic options, but nowhere does the Bible say.

In fact, God employs several forms of constitutional structures to govern his own people through course of the Old Testament: family structures among the Patriarchs, judges from Moses to Samuel, monarchy from Saul to the exile, and then, apparently, the formally independent qahal while in exile. No system is sacrosanct.

As Westerners, we typically want to say that some form of liberal democracy is the best of the worst (to paraphrase Churchill). Our political imaginations are almost incapable of conceiving of something else. And within a certain kind of political culture, imbued with centuries’ worth of Christian-ish values, I would agree. The various structures that Americans associate with liberal government (popular elections, a written constitution, a bicameral legislature, judicial review, the separation of executive and legislative branches, and federalism) have contributed great good to the state of many Americans.

Still, we cannot say that these are the right structures for all times and places. How well has democracy fared in the post U.S.-occupied Afghanistan or Iraq, or in the former Soviet republics of central Asia?

When you idealize a governing structure and concept of justice that does not have the express endorsement of Scripture, you risk both the idolatry of substituting man’s wisdom for God’s, and you risk trading one set of injustices for another.

My point is not to say I would prefer a non-democratic government. But I do mean to relativize just a bit what we take for granted as Westerners, and to distinguish what’s absolute (the Bible) and what’s merely prudential.

What The Ideal Government Does 

What then does the ideal government do? Whether it’s a monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy, the ideal government acts as God’s servant, as Paul puts it. It employs the sword to approve what is good and to punish that which is bad (Rom. 13:1-7). It renders judgment, as God puts it in Genesis 9:5-6.

But this is only the proximate purpose of government, just like the proximate purpose of highway guardrails is to keep cars on the road. The ultimate purpose of government is to provide a platform for God’s plan of redemption, just like the ultimate purposes of those guardrails is to help cars get from city A to city B. Genesis 9 comes before Genesis 12 and the call to Abraham for a reason.

Paul therefore observes that God determines the borders of nations and the dates of their duration so that people might seek him (Acts 17:26-27). People need to be able to walk to church without getting mauled by marauders. They cannot get saved if they are dead.

He also urges us to pray for kings and all in high positions so that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives. “This is good,” he continues, and “pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:2-4). We pray for our government so that the saints might live peaceful lives and people will get saved.

The ideal government, ultimately, provides a platform for the work of the saints. It builds a stage for the drama of redemption. It doesn’t interfere with the church’s work, and it makes sure that no one else does either.

Two basic kinds of governments then show up in the Bible: those that shelter God’s people, and those that destroy them. Abimelech sheltered; Pharoah destroyed. The Assyrians destroyed; the Babylonians and Persians, ultimately, sheltered. Pilate destroyed; Festus sheltered. And depending on how you read Revelation, the history of government will culminate in a beastly spilling of saintly blood.

If I were forced to point to a single verse that capture’s the Bible’s political philosophy, it just might be 1 Kings 3:28. Following the episode with Solomon and the two prostitutes, the narrator observes that the people of Israel “stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice.” A good government relies on God’s wisdom and justice. Specifically, it employs the wisdom of God to do justice (see also 2 Sam 8:15; 1 Kings 10:9; Ps. 72:1-2; Prov. 29:4 Ezek 45:9). It employs the power of the sword to insist that people are treated as God-imaging ends not as means. And, again, perhaps the most important way it treats humans as made in the image of God is to provide the church with the freedom to do its work.

The Truly Ideal Polity 

A final biblical lesson: there is no ideal polity apart from renewed and regenerate hearts. You can have God’s chosen king and a divinely revealed law, and still a nation will lurch toward idolatry, injustice, child sacrifice, oppressing the poor and foreigner, and ruling by bribery.

The truly ideal polity combines not only righteous laws, but hearts that actually want to obey those laws. And that ideal polity can in fact be found in the new covenant, regenerate church.

Really, this is the topic for another article. But for the record, it is the local church that should act as God’s ideal polity on planet earth. Churches are Christ’s kingdom embassies of God’s justice and righteousness, and they are to provoke the wonder and envy of the nations.

Where will swords first be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks as enemies learn to love one another? Where should we look for “the just and lasting peace” that Abraham Lincoln pined for in his second inaugural? Where should we expect to see little black boys and girls sitting down with little white boys and girls, as Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed? In your church and mine. There the end of history has broken into the present, and we find God’s version of the ideal polity.

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.

By / Jan 14

Editor’s Note: Canon & Culture is beginning 2015 with a Symposium on Statecraft and political theology featuring six essays from Research Fellows of the ERLC’s Research Institute.

You had all these advantages in your ancient states, but you chose to act as if you had never been molded into a civil society and had everything to begin anew. You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you.[1]

So begins Edmund Burke’s scathing criticism of the French Revolutionaries. In disposing of its political tradition and all the institutions founded upon it, the self-anointed republic attempted the impossible. Revolutionaries, led brashly by Robespierre, sought to craft the French constitution entirely from scratch, assuming all the while that they could, like God, create something ex nihilo. Burke’s prediction that the episode would end in spectacular calamity was uniformly prescient. It turns out constitutions are indeed inherited; gifts of the past received as an authoritative body of wisdom. “Revolutionaries do not make revolutions!” reminds Hannah Arendt. By which she meant that the reshaping of political life through violent means always ends in disaster. Real, enduring change in politics is always imperceptibly gradual.

When the question of “what the ideal American polity would look like from a Christian perspective?” was first put to me, Burke’s Reflections came immediately to mind. Statecrafting is not a task humans assume with great competence. As is the case with so many of our aims, sometimes ambitious projects spiral into abject failure, while at other times our modest, simplistic projects flower surprisingly into astonishing success. There’s often a persistent disjunction between our intentions and achievements, and the same truth applies to objects of state.

The theoretical point is, in my view, an unprofitable line of counterfactual speculation anyway. The option to start over, to hit the reset button, does not fall to us. If however, as I have intimated, the shaping of politics occurs gradually because citizens undertake distinctly political projects in public, then any “crafting” of the state is for the Christian a result of faithful, prudent, and patient contributions to the fabric of public life. The real and lasting effects of those activities will remain unknown until seen in retrospect, so we must hope that public acts carried out in faith and love do in fact leave an enduring impression.

The Reformers, for good reason, associated this gradual transformation of politics with the theological notion of vocation. Part of what characterizes our vocation is the fact of having a political citizenship to which we are in some sense responsible. Some are called to farming, some to trading, some to building, and some even to governing. Vocation defines the mode and scope of one’s contribution. Remaining faithful to our vocations, minding our own affairs (1 Thess 4:11), gives to God what only God as sovereign Lord of all can do—to alter the state of politics as such. As is so often the case, Augustine perhaps puts it best:

…let us not attribute the power to grant kingdoms and empires to any save the true God. He gives happiness in the kingdom of Heaven only to the godly. Earthly kingdoms, however, He gives to the godly and ungodly alike, as it may please Him, whose good pleasure is never unjust. [2]

1.) God in his sovereignty rules the political order. It is impossible to square the imperatives of Romans 13:1-7 with the impulse to replace real political orders with ideal ones. Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, instructs Paul (13:1). Not “overthrow all authority.” Not “submit, but plot a political substitute.” Not “you are the governing authority.” Recall that Romans 13 is but a continuation of Paul’s cautionary remarks at the end of chapter twelve to “live peaceably with all” and “never to avenge yourselves,” prompting the community to question just how they are supposed to react in the face of insurmountable and unbearable injustice. Paul’s response is that the authorities have been appointed by God to remedy such wrongs. The one in authority is the one God appointed as—and this is Paul’s word—a servant to execute judgment. Either Paul is correct and God does indeed appoint civil authorities, or Paul is incorrect and sovereignty ultimately resides elsewhere. I’ll opt for the former, particularly since Paul doubles-up in verse two, removing all doubt as to meaning—for there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been appointed by God (13:2).

2.) God appoints people, not procedures. On this point there is rather wide disagreement and I readily concede that my view may represent a very small minority. I believe the personal language Paul deploys in Romans 13 in reference to “authorities” cannot be interpreted as institutional. In other words, I don’t think the “authorities” Paul refers to in Romans 13 are the constitutions, procedures, or processes of the state, but to the personswho rule that state as God’s “servants.”[3] Sometimes God gives us the rulers we need, and sometimes he gives us the rulers we deserve; that is the Divine prerogative. Israel pleads for “a king to judge us” so that they may be “like all nations” (1 Sam 8), and they are given Saul. The church would I think do well to heed the theological lesson here and resist the temptation to hope in a state that cannot possibly achieve what God achieves in Christ. We are but pilgrims longing for our true Home.

3.) What, then, are we doing when we vote? A question I ask myself repeatedly, especially around election time. The answer depends almost entirely upon what we think we are doing when we vote. When we vote we are casting a ballot in favor of the candidate whom we believe will do the best job of governing. We vote in favor of someone, even if we mean it only symbolically. To undertake this particular activity—voting—the Christian must be convinced that the ballot is cast as an obedient response to the command of God in discipleship. The question any Christian must put to himself, therefore, is whether God has commanded he vote as an essential step in his ongoing walk in the Spirit. One participates willingly in democratic elections as a disciple or not at all.

4.) Voting is comparably less potent than another, fully potent form of political activity: prayer. It is indeed rather distressing that a church so confounded and horrified by the current political atmosphere prays so irregularly for the authorities that preside over it. Our most powerful political activity is perhaps the least engaged. We’re far more ready to effect political change in the booth than in the closet. Writing in the face of tremendous persecution, a very early (anonymous) writer of the early church remarks, “I will pay honor to the emperor not by worshipping him but by praying for him.”[4] And indeed it seems the basic posture of the early church was deeply intercessory.

5.) Rather than focusing on whether or how to craft a state, we would do better to give our attention to the callings God has uniquely given us. Carrying out our vocations is political by definition. We are, after all, citizens of two cities, one earthly and one heavenly. We have no biblical reason to expect, much less to seek, the ideal political state this side of the eschaton. We sojourn toward it but we will not behold it until the coming of the Son in judgment, when evil and injustice are inevitably and finally expunged. On that day we will relish the truth that concludes John’s Revelation:

There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need not light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign forever and ever. (Rev. 22:3-5)

“Yes,” you might ask, but what are we to do now in our current contexts? In the meantime, I suggest, our task is to carry out our vocations faithfully and obediently, heeding the word of Christ and bearing witness to the truth of his rule. Some individuals will be called expressly to political office, to minister to society as God’s servant. That calling is, of course, for God to decide and the task is carried out no differently than the butcher’s or baker’s. The magistrate punishes evil and rewards good, remaining eager to maintain conditions for mutual flourishing. Nevertheless, regardless of our specific vocations, we undertake them faithfully on the assumption that in bearing witness to the rule of Christ we manifestly alter the political sphere. Walking in the Spirit changes things. Any “crafting” of our state is achieved through the power of the Spirit, our eyes are ever fixed on Christ. Prior to any crafting of state is the crafting of the Church into people able and eager to live as Christ’s body and to carry his message of good news to all who will listen.

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.

[1] Edmund Burk, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Thomas H. D. Mahoney, ed. (Indianapolis: Liberal Arts Press, 1955), 40.

[2] Augustine, City of God. R. W. Dyson, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 227.

[3] The crucial question related to appointment of evil rulers must be set-aside for now, but I do hope to address it directly in the future.

[4] O’Donovan and O’Donovan, From Irenaeus to Grotius. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 14.