Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Why Christians Should Serve in Government and Law

I had an interesting response to the fundamental law quotes from Martin Luther. One of Luther’s quotes indicated that Christians should be involved in government and that rulers ought to be Christians. I received a couple of emails that strongly disagreed. They believed that government was “unholy and unclean” and that Christians had no business touching it with a 10-foot pole, let alone actually becoming officers of the state.

Within Christianity there has always been a segment which has held this view. In the times of ancient Rome, it made more sense because participation in the imperial government frequently involved the worship of idols or of the emperor. Even today, some Christians mistake art for idolatry and believe that because there are statues of pagan gods on government buildings or murals, these deities are in some way being worshipped or respected, and therefore government is inherently idolatrous and therefore, not a place for a Christian.

Throughout Christian history, Pietists have also tended to be opposed to Christian involvement in government. For the Pietist, they see power, coercion and violence as always evil (unless, of course, done by God Himself or in response to His direct order). Since all government is ultimately based upon power, coercion and violence, these radical Pietists are unwilling to participate in government in any way. Pietists reject violence because of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount. The real difficulty for them comes in harmonizing other passages of Scripture that approve of violence for stopping oppression or punishing evil. In this respect, Pietists tend to be volunteerists and believe that God can do whatever He wants—forbidding violence to His people while engaging in violence Himself or ordaining non-Christians to engage in violence. But this view is difficult to fit with a more thorough theology. God is really the ultimate source and definition of goodness. His nature is what leads Him to do what He does, to allow what He allows, and to forbid what He forbids. God forbids what is contrary to His nature and allows what is in accord with His nature.

God judges evil, and repeatedly uses violence against it. He also states in Romans 13 and in I Peter chapter 2 that government is God’s servant to reward good and punish evil. Non-Pietists have traditionally harmonized these verses with the verses ordering individual Christians not to engage in acts of vengeance by saying that we turn the other cheek as individuals, while we act as a third party or a group or a government to defend others. We allow someone to strike our cheek, but we don’t allow someone to strike someone else’s cheek. As Luther said, because government is an ordination of God, it ought to be done by Christians since Christians are going to be better at carrying out God’s will expressly than non-Christians are at carrying it out against their will. Pietists like to fall back on God’s sovereignty and say that God will use evil, pagan government to carry out whatever purposes He has for government. But this is a difficult argument to really make about anything in life. God obviously uses our actions. Even though God is completely sovereign and in control of human history, we still have the apparent need to make free will decisions and to be involved in affairs. If we work for a living and save money and use our money wisely, we may be blessed to find that God has sovereignly allowed us to prosper. If we refuse to work, spend whatever we have, and throw away whatever God brings our way, we may discover to our shock and dismay that God has sovereignly decided that we will starve to death and die in poverty. If we are cautious to live a healthy life and to minimize risks, we may discover that God in His sovereignty will allow us to live a long time (there is always the risk that He won’t, despite our precautions). But if we take many risks, such as jumping off cliffs and driving cars into stationary objects and eating things that are poisonous to our system, we are likely to discover that God has sovereignly determined that we will not live very long (though again, He could miraculously intervene to preserve our lives—He just usually doesn’t in those circumstances). The same sort of thing is true of government. If we allow evil people to dominate government, undoubtedly God will still sovereignly act to get some modicum of justice out of them. But it undoubtedly will not be a government as good, benevolent or as helpful as a government run by godly people. If godly people do get involved in government, they will still make mistakes because they are still sinful human beings. But because they are willing and able to be guided by God, they are likely to make fewer mistakes. By the same token, God may still allow a godly government to make disastrous miscalculations if He is determined to punish a people for their sinfulness. The demise of Israel and Judah at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians respectively was occasionally postponed by the repentance led by Judah’s good kings, but it was not prevented.

If we get involved in government, it will be a blessing to our neighbors. If we allow our government to be evil, it will be a curse to our neighbors. To expect God to give us a good government when we’re not willing to do anything about it or to willing to tolerate bad government when we can do something about it, is not faith—it is tempting God. It is like the man who jumps off a cliff and demands that God save him.

In addition, what does the Bible really say about Christians and participation in government? In the Old Testament, many of the people of God were involved in government. We have all of the good kings of Israel and Judah. We have all of the respected advisors of King David and the good kings. Isaiah was apparently an official in the government of Judah. Daniel, Nehemiah and Ezra were not only willing to work with their fellow Israelites, but had official positions with foreign governments – governments that openly worshiped idols. Esther was willing to be made queen of Persia and her uncle was a member of the Persian military. Naaman, the commander of the army of Aram, was converted and healed of leprosy under the ministry of Elisha. Naaman mentioned that he would be required to enter a pagan temple on state occasions. But Elisha does not tell him to leave the service of Aram.

In the New Testament, we still have some involvement of Christians in government. There are a number of Roman centurions mentioned in the New Testament account. All of them are in one way or another commended for their faith. None of them are criticized for their position in the Roman military. None of them are ordered in the biblical account to leave their service to Rome. When soldiers come and talk to John the Baptist, he doesn’t tell them to leave their soldiering, but rather to be just in the way their treat civilians and to be happy with their pay. When Paul speaks to numerous government officials throughout the Mediterranean world, he shares with them about Christ. He never tells them that if they become a Christian, they will need to leave government service. In fact, there isn’t any place in the entire Bible where people are told they should not be involved in government service or in the work of legitimate militaries. While there is criticism of some evil kings and evil armities, there is no rule or blanket prohibition whatsoever. There is no statement in the biblical account to the effect that government is in any way unclean or inherently evil.

There are statements in the Bible that by implication should encourage us to be involved in government. For example, Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves certainly requires interaction with the government. How can we love our neighbor and then allow them to be oppressed by the government? The Old Testament is full of injunctions to do away with oppression and to work for justice. Generally speaking, it is only through the power of government that we are able to work for justice or to do away with oppression. Mere preaching and witnessing without any civic or group action rarely brings true evildoers to justice or gives them any genuine pause. In the New Testament, Paul was willing to use his Roman citizenship as a tool for the Gospel. Paul made no objections to being treated like a Roman, but made many objections to people disregarding his rights as a Roman citizen.

Let’s also look at the practical problems. While some people believe that harsh governments that persecute Christians are good for the Gospel, and so if Christians stay out of government, the results will be positive because the Gospel will be spread. While it is true that the Gospel not only survived but prospered under Roman persecution, this is not always the case. Christianity was nearly wiped out in Japan by the persecution of the Tokugawa shogunate. It is interesting that Japan has never been responsive to the Gospel in a major way since that time. In addition, look at the entire Middle East and North Africa and Central Asia. During the Roman times, North Africa was heavily Christianized. The Middle East, likewise, had many Christians. During his travels through Central Asia, Marco Polo reports encountering Christians and Jews throughout his journeys. Yet today, Christianity is virtually gone in all of these places. Islam has almost completely choked it out. In the majority of places where the Gospel has not yet reached, it is no longer a problem of logistics—it is a problem of the local government. Through the use of government and diplomacy, doors can be opened to the Gospel around the world and be kept open. Since one of our primary missions as a church is to carry out the Great Commission by preaching the Gospel and making disciples of all nations, it only makes sense that we would use government and diplomacy when we can to ensure our ability to take the Gospel to all nations and to keep taking it to them.

Another problem with the Pietists’ desire to avoid government service is that, as I have said before, in a republic such as our own, we are the government. The people of the United States are all citizens with an obligation to vote. If we do not show up at the ballot box on elections, we are effectively voting to agree with the majority of other people who cast their votes. Our abstention is a kind of voting all by itself. Non-participation is a participation on the side of those who disagree with us. But government is not merely office holding or voting. Lawyers are officers of the court and they are actually, in a sense, members of the government. Lawyers are part of the machinery of the judicial process and part of the work of government even when they defend people against lawyers employed directly by the government. So if Christians are serious about staying out of government, they should stay out of the law courts and stay out of the legal profession as well. But if Christians really are supposed to be active in their love of neighbor and in seeking justice and ending oppression, it makes perfect sense to be active in the practice of law. The legal profession provides more opportunities for ending oppression, working for justice, counseling people to do what is right and having opportunities to share the Gospel with people who are in a stressed situation than almost any other profession.

If Christians think that they should stay out of government, not only should they not be office holders, lawyers, policemen or warriors, but they must also renounce government employment and government services. In the end, I’m afraid there are very few things that a thoroughgoing Pietist can actually do in our society. There is also another problem. In many small American communities, the majority of people are Christians. If you live in a tiny town in rural North Carolina or rural Texas, you might have 40 heads of household in the town and they might very well all be committed Christians. Who then is going to be the mayor? Do you have to import a non-Christian to be the mayor of your town?

Another argument made by the Pietists is the great evil observed in human governments. But again, if Christians are not willing to participate in these governments, why shouldn’t we expect them to be evil? But since all human governments involve humans, we can’t expect any of them to be perfect. Humans commit sins and they are never going to run a government perfectly. But this still does not mean we shouldn’t work for the best possible government we can have in a fallen world. Government is not God; it is not the answer to all of life’s problems. But a bad government certainly can add to our problems. Should Christians also stay out of business because of the dishonesty and greed found there? Should Christians stay out of medicine because doctors often take a pagan oath? Should Christians avoid farming because many farmers swear and tell coarse jokes? Where does the separation mentality end?

Being involved in law and government is part of being “in the world.” It need not mean being “of the world.” There is plenty of room in today’s world for godly people to follow in the footsteps of Joseph and Daniel. They would even do well to follow in the footsteps of those great Christians who have already gone before us in law and government, such as Edward Coke, Matthew Hale, Thomas Sherlock, Thomas Erskine, I.H. Linton, Sir Alfred Denning, William Wilberforce and enumerable others.

In this encouragement I am not saying that everyone needs to become a lawyer or an office holder. But I do think that everyone in American needs to acquaint themselves with issues and be willing to vote and share the truth not only about Jesus Christ, but about proper and just government with their neighbors. And in deciding whether we or our children should become shoemakers, firemen, factory workers, construction workers, sailors, soldiers, policemen, bakers, accountants or businessmen, we should not neglect the vocations of the lawyer, the judge and the statesman, or even the job of the government bureaucrat without whose just services so many people suffer.

When God gave His covenant to Noah, He ordained human government. When He said that if man sheds man’s blood, then by man’s blood shall his blood be shed, God was setting up a system which would require someone to decide that a murder had been committed, someone to investigate the murder, someone to present the case regarding the murder, someone to try the murder case, someone to decide the facts, someone to pass the sentence and someone to carry out the execution. In ordaining human government, God was not ordaining evil because He Himself is not evil. While God uses evildoers, He prefers to use good people. This is why He replaced King Saul with King David—the man after His own heart. Why should we think then that those who do God’s will are less likely to serve God in government than those who oppose His will? Why should we think as citizens of a republic that God will not consider us responsible for the deeds of the republic when we fail to influence those deeds and act to restrain evil and further good?

The work of justice and of government is not easy. It is very difficult. It requires the making of complex, moral decisions and will occasionally involve making mistakes. But God has not called us to hide the treasure He gives us in the earth. He has called us to put our treasure at risk that He might gain interest from it and be prospered by our labor with what He has given us.

Yet one last objection that the Pietist makes to government involvement is eschatological: they believe that because Jesus is coming back soon, we are merely polishing the brass on a sinking ship. Indeed, Jesus may return soon. But He may also not return for another 10,000 years. There is simply no way for us to know. There have been many times in the last 2,000 years that it looked as though the return of Christ was imminent. His return could be imminent now. But we cannot act as though Christ were coming back tomorrow. The Bible instructs us not to. Paul discouraged those who would quit their jobs to await the Second Coming of Christ. We need to go about the business of preparing for the future, loving our neighbor, spreading the Gospel and making disciples so that when Christ returns, He will find us acting faithfully instead of sitting around doing nothing. Even if fighting for the right is a losing battle, I want to be found faithful when Christ comes back or when I fall awaiting His return.

1 comment:

Gavin said...

Dean...this is a very very well researched paper...I had to read it from top to bottom...amazing stuff...written for such a time as this...
In South Africa we stuggle with narrow minded people who believe Christians should have nothing to do with Gov
We have good roots planted at
Thanks for such a great article