Christians and Government
A fatal flaw in Christian worldview thinking is equating “government” with the State. The Cambridge Dictionary defines government as “the group of people who officially control a country.” In fact, God has established numerous “governments” with various prerogatives and powers to advance His holy purposes.
For the Christian, all government begins with self-government. The regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is the starting point of all self-government. Those who are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) must be given a new heart and a new spirit. The Apostle Paul tells us “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law” (Rom. 8:7).
Regeneration, however, is just the beginning. In Christ, we become a new creation and are prepared to accomplish the good works for which we were created (Eph. 2:10). We are dead to sin, and slaves to Christ. In the strength of the Holy Spirit, we also have the ability to obey the commands of the King, and we are obligated to do so out of love (John 14:15, I John 2:3-5). The theological term for this process is progressive sanctification. In effect, we become more Christ-like in our attitudes and actions. This process of progressive growth ought to be foundational to any Christian strategy of cultural and political activism. In other words, the transformation of individuals must precede the transformation of institutions and culture. Discipleship trumps politicking.
A second “government” created by God, and I think arguably the most important institution, is the family. The family, has been given stewardship over children, authority over property and inheritance, and control over education. The family is also the institution preeminently responsible for social welfare. Paul says that the failure to care for our own marks us as “worse than an unbeliever” (I Tim. 5:8) and James says that “pure and undefiled religion…is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble” (James 1:27). The early church did not depend on the Roman civil authorities to meet social needs. Likewise, we see Jesus on the cross with His dying words ensuring that His mother is taken care of by John (John 19:25-27). The modern State has encroached into all these areas that rightly fall under the purview of family government. Strong and stable families, jealously guarding their prerogatives, are the foundation of strong and stable communities, and only these mediating institutions can protect the naked individual from the maniacal, power-hungry State.
There are other “governments” as well, foremost among them, the school and the church. The point here is a simple one – God has established various institutions and given them responsibilities in their spheres of influence. More importantly, the jurisdiction of these institutions has been limited and circumscribed by the Scriptures.
Christians need to realize that the State is not sovereign. Only God is absolutely sovereign. All human agencies have limited degrees of authority. Scripture tells us that all power and authority reside in the resurrected and ascended Christ who is enthroned at the hand of God (Matt. 28:18) and that it is in Christ that all things are held together (Col. 1:17). The institutions created by Him are to serve as His ministers, working out His will.
Having said all of that, what does Scripture say is the role of civil authorities? Are they to educate children, cut social security checks, provide cheap prescription drugs, and mindlessly invade foreign nations?
According to the Bible, God established civil government for three primary reasons:
Paul says that the civil authority is a servant of God (Rom. 13:4) who is responsible to enforce justice. The Biblical role for the State is limited to the administration of just laws to defend life and property, punish criminals, and defend the innocent. In other words, the State’s role is to restrain evil by exacting negative sanctions and is not a redemptive institution. The modern therapeutic State, on the other hand, has usurped all authority to its bosom, and seeks to make us “good” through stringent enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, hate crimes legislation, diversity training, speech codes, and messianic public education.
Having briefly touched on the role of the State, what are our obligations to civil authorities? Quite simply we are to pray for our leaders (I Tim. 2:1-2), honor their God-ordained office (I Peter 2:17, Rom. 13:7), pay taxes (Rom. 13:6-7, Matt. 22:15-21), and obey their lawful commands (Rom. 13:5, Titus 3:1).
Does Paul’s command to submit to lawful authorities mean we are never to resist the State? Some State-worshipping Evangelicals seem to think so. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, Baptist author and theologian Henry Blackaby said that based on his reading of Romans 13, those opposing George Bush’s Mesopotamian excursion were courting the judgment of God. Similar ravings could be heard crossing the lips of other conservative Evangelicals who shall remain nameless.
Since Scripture is our authority and guide, perhaps the Evangelical statists could explain just a few of the references to civil disobedience in the Bible. In Ex. 1:18-21 we read the account of Pharaoh commanding the Israelite midwives to kill every Jewish boy. They disobeyed and were counted blessed by God. In II Kings we read of the high priest Jehoiada leading a coup against Athaliah. Daniel 3 gives the account of Shadrach, Meschach and Aded-Nego, who defied Nebuchadnezzar. When the disciples were arrested for preaching the Gospel, Peter’s reply recorded in Acts 5:29 was, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” Needless to say, they continued to preach (Acts 4:18-31, Acts 5:17-29). What of Daniel’s defiance of King Darius’ decree (Daniel 6:1-17) or Rahab’s deceit in protecting Israel’s spies? In short, there are times when civil disobedience is justified, nay, demanded by Scripture.
After such a statement, a few caveats are in order. With respect to civil disobedience, Romans 13 clearly forbids lone ranger-style anarchism. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin made the point that God ordains all magistrates, not merely the supreme civil authority. Since all civil authorities have an obligation to interpret the law, and since law supercedes even the king, lower magistrates may lead a rebellion against higher civil authorities that violate the law if there is no other appropriate means of redress. Much more can and should be said about civil disobedience, suffice to say for now that only in extreme circumstances, after large amounts of prayer, reflection, and counting the costs, should Christians openly rebel against the State.
Fortunately, we still live in a nation where a “revolution” can be engineered at the ballot box rather than in the streets. Which raises the obvious question: How should Christians approach politics?
Some Christians point to Paul’s injunction to “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” along with other texts, as evidence that Christians should avoid politics for fear of being infected by “worldliness.” An extreme separatism characterized American fundamentalism during the last century from about the time of the Scopes Trial until the resurgence of the so-called “religious right” in late 1970’s. As a rule, few Christians hold this view today. In fact, the case against voting and in favor of a total disengagement from politics is primarily made by anarchist libertarians like Wendy McElroy and “sympathetic nonbelievers” like Fred Reed and Nicholas Strakhon.
While I would agree that our first priorities involve our Christian walk, fellowship with the brethren, and teaching and guiding our families (Deut. 6), we cannot ignore politics for several reasons. First, and most obviously, all of life is ethical. Paul writes in II Cor. 10:5 that, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” Moreover, as Christians we are to do all things for God’s glory (II Cor. 10:31). As believers, we are to shine the light of truth into dark corners, wherever that may take us. The Bible is given to us primarily to reveal God in His glory and to lead us to faith. But the Word also speaks to politics, economics, and culture. There is no neutrality. Jesus tells us that we are either with Him or against Him, and that applies to politics as well as every other area of life. Christ has all authority, and has a claim on our loyalty. In short, Christians should be active in the affairs of government, and the midwifery of politics, because government ultimately belongs to God.
Secondly, whether they realize it or not, Christians who counsel cultural and political disengagement are in reality preaching a Gnostic gospel. Frequently these well-intentioned folks create an artificial distinction between “spiritual” and “secular” realms. In arguing that the material world is essentially evil, they are closer to being neo-Platonists than Christians. Christian separatists need to answer some fundamental questions: What part of life is not to be given to Him and lived according to His precepts? Is there some area where His people are not to work to exercise Godly authority?
As God’s people we are called to be salt and light to a dying and dark world (Matt. 5:13-16). Moreover, God affirms that the creation itself is good (Gen. 1:31) and that it is sin that causes the creation to groan. Our duty as God’s stewards is to not only spread the Gospel and make disciples, but to work at the restoration of His creation. When the New Testament speaks of salvation, it is talking about an act of the Messiah. It means more than just rescuing a few blighted souls from the darkness of eternal punishment, it speaks to an ethical transformation that impacts every area of life--including politics.
Once we have declared that civil affairs, too, belong to the Lord, we need a blueprint to follow for activism, and the hard work actually begins. Fortunately, God in His grace has given the Scriptures as an authoritative and infallible guide (II Tim. 3:16) to His people. It is in the Word, rather than reason or natural revelation that we ought to begin when constructing an overarching theory of the State and politics. Having said that, determining when, how, and why to advocate political activism is no easy task. Not only must we define the just ends of civil government, we must ensure that those ends are pursued with Biblical methods. Moreover, there are often practical problems with the implementation of public policy and the pursuit of political power. Unfortunately, the church has been negligent in devising a consistent framework for political and cultural engagement. Deriving sound principles for activism from the Scriptures will take much thoughtful exegesis and careful application of Biblical principles and law to contemporary problems. Alas, there is much work to do, and the laborers are few.
Despite the apparently long odds, we must fight. A cosmopolitan, anti-Western, humanistic elite has established control of virtually every viable institution, including the instruments of cultural dissemination and political control. Their allegiance and loyalty is to a false God. Will we have the courage to reclaim the heritage bestowed to us, to take back the nation-state from those who would destroy it, or will we opt instead to cower comfortably behind our televisions with a frothy cappuccino?
July 9, 2004
Darrell Dow writes from Jeffersonville, Indiana where he works as a statistician. A misanthropic Paleoconservative, Darrell is the husband of Kathy, and the father of Joshua and Andrew. To see pictures of the boys and get a small glimpse into the Dow house, visit the family website. Darrell also maintains a website and a new blog. Darrell can be contacted here.