Tuesday, January 13, 2015

On "Christian nations" and Christians' political/social involvement

It is fairly common for conservative, evangelical Christians in America to claim, either explicitly or implicitly, that America was founded as a "Christian nation," has fallen away from its roots, and needs to return to them.

I don't agree with the claim when stated in this form.

Does this mean I support the anti-theistic, amoral society that we're becoming? 

Well, no. 

What I don't agree with in the claim above is the premise that America (where the word America refers to the political entity which came into existence in 1788 with the signing of its present Constitution) was ever a "Christian nation" or that Christians ought to be trying to establish formally Christian nations on the earth anyway. Relative to the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, it might be true (although I doubt it) that America was once a nation with a high percentage of Christians. America might also have been (and I believe it was) founded by men, the overwhelming majority of whom were devout Christians, with the sincere goal of establishing righteous government. But it was never a Christian nation. 

In fact, I don't even think such a thing as a Christian nation is even possible in this age redemptive history.

Why, you might ask, do I think that? Well, for starters, the term "nation," in its political sense, signifies a well-defined group of people who agree to be subject to a common system of government. Given that not all Americans ever agreed to be subject to Christ (i.e., to become Christians) or to the Bible, and given that office-bearing was never restricted to Christians, this nation was never a Christian nation in any meaningful sense. It is true that American institutions were established with enormous influence of Christian ideas, but that does not make the United States a Christian nation.

As for the reason that I don't think there can even be such a thing as a Christian nation in this age of the world, that requires a little more explanation.

Even if we were to allow for the possibility (which I don't, so long as Christ Himself is not physically here on earth to govern) that it's legitimate for Christians to establish a nation governed exclusively by Christians using only the Bible as their ultimate standard, we must contend with a horrendously difficult set of issues with regard to what that hypothetical system of government would look like.

When evangelical Christians talk about a "Christian nation," they usually have a pretty limited idea in their minds of what that means. What they often have in mind is a semi-mythical golden age in the American past that we need to "get back to." If pressed, they'll usually come up with a relatively short list of things that we need to do: outlaw abortion, put prayer and the Bible back in schools, get rid of no-fault divorce, make sexual activity outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage illegal, clean up the smut in media, and so on. 

Many conservative evangelicals would also add various things to this list which are probably more Republican ideas than solidly biblical ones: things like reducing taxes (does the Bible really specify what the right level of taxation is or what combination of property, earned income, capital gains, sales, custom/excise, value-added, etc. should be levied to gather it?), getting rid of national health care plans (does the Bible really tell us how to deal with out of control health-care inflation), providing for a strong national defense, tort reform, Second Amendment rights, and so on. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that any of these things are bad policy recommendations. I'm actually in favor of many of them (assuming they are implemented well). What I am saying is that implementing various of these things is not at all the same thing as drawing a comprehensive model for laws and civil administration from the Bible.

What would a more comprehensively biblical model for civil administration even look like? As many non-Christians have noted, there are lots of laws in the Bible that Christians don't  keep any more. While I think it's not that hard to defend in general (i.e. in terms of a distinction between moral, ceremonial, and civil law) why that is so, making individual decisions about which laws from ancient Israel ought to have some kind of counterpart in today's civil law is a complicated matter. And yet, if someone proposes to establish a nation whose civil laws are derived from biblical prescriptions, it is necessary to be very clear and comprehensive in identifying which laws and institutions are binding outside the context of ancient Israel, and which are not. And even for those which are still binding, there remains the question of which of those laws are to be enforced by state authority (as opposed to being enforced by God Himself). 

It's impossible to do this comprehensively in this short blog post, but to illustrate the complexities of this project, consider a few examples.

Most Christians will agree that it is not appropriate to adopt the ceremonial code of ancient Israel as a binding standard for Americans. But what about ancient Israel's administrative laws? Should we have something analogous to allowing the poor to glean the edges of a field in our law code? What about the idea of inalienable family land title (i.e., land that can only be temporarily leased, not sold)? Sabbatical years? Years of jubilee?

And what about the moral Law? Meaning the one that most Christians still believe represents God's will for all mankind (I don't personally know any Christians who think it's OK to murder, steal, commit adultery, and so on). The last time I checked, the Ten Commandments also require that only the true God is to be worshiped, that graven images cannot be made, that one is not to misuse God's Name, that the Sabbath is to be observed (which Sabbath? Saturday, Sunday, your choice of any day so long as you do it? or is it only the Nine Commandments now?) and to honor parents. Elsewhere in Scripture these same "religious" prescriptions have specified punishments for violating them (usually the penalty is death). Please note, I'm not writing any of this with any intent to mock God's holy Law. God forbid! But I am saying that the fact that God's covenant with ancient Israel was unique ought to make us think very hard about how to apply even the moral laws and their civil penalties outside of Israel's redemptive-historical context.

Some readers might want to avoid all these issues with the rather lame response that "we are not under the Law." That is certainly true of Christians with regard to our accountability to God's eternal punishment for breaking His moral Law. But that's not what we're talking about here. The point here is that if you propose to establish an earthly system of government with earthly laws having earthly penalties for disobedience, you need to say which biblical laws you are choosing to have a civil government enforce and why you've chosen those ones and not others. 

You see, in ancient Israel people didn't really have much choice in anything. They were born Israelites (well, yes, there were some proselytes as well) and, being Israelites, were obligated to live under the entire Mosaic code. Once a person had entered the covenant, whether through birth or through conversion, leaving was not permitted. You were obligated to keep the entire Mosaic Law - which dealt comprehensively with ceremonial, civil, and moral matters - under penalty of civil government. 

That situation is not at all the same as that of the modern Christian. The New Testament seems clear in teaching that to be converted to Christianity is something which is ultimately between the individual and God. Although every individual person does have moral obligation to trust in Christ, it is God, and not the civil magistrate, who will enforce the penalty (the eternal penalty of hell) for his or her refusal to do so.There is no hint in the New Testament that someone who apostatizes from Christianity (or never makes profession in the first place) is expected to face a civil penalty for that. In this age of redemptive history, the church, as God's covenant community, does not bear civil authority (although individual Christians often do). 

And what about our system of government itself? Some modern advocates of a Christian government for the U.S. argue that the Scripture calls for a democratic republic as the biblical form of government. This is not an exegetically sound claim. Actually, Old Testament Israel was a monarchy, not a republic, and leadership in the tribes was family- and clan-based. Although there are instances of leaders being chosen (as in Exodus 18 and in Numbers 11), it seems from closer examination of genealogical records that those leaders chosen to represent the tribes in national assemblies were generally clan leaders - there was nothing resembling a modern election and political campaign.

And what about the offices of government? In America we have three branches: legislative, judicial, and executive. In ancient Israel, you had prophet, priest, and king. You didn't have a legislative branch. The Law was fixed. You didn't get to change it or add to it. You only got to interpret it. This was what kings and the judges appointed by them did, with input from the priests. Prophets were messengers from God who confronted kings, priests, and people for failure to keep the covenant of Law.

In short, the models for government that we find in the Bible don't seem directly applicable to the situation of a non-covenant nation in the Christian era. So, someone who proposes to establish a system of laws and government established on "Christian" or "biblical" principles is not so much having those things prescribed out of Scripture as inventing things and determining whether what they've invented contradicts anything from the Law of Scripture which is of abiding validity.

It seems, then, that the project of establishing Christian government is not a simple one. This doesn't by itself imply, of course, that we're not supposed to try to do it. The fact that something is hard doesn't mean that we're not obligated to do it. Are there other reasons that Christian nations cannot exist in this age?

The most important reason is theological. There is a Christian nation. Only one Christian nation. The church. Redeemed out of every earthly nation by God and promised a heavenly city. As the Apostle Peter says,
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10, ESV)
The Apostle Paul, too, confirms this:
But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:20, ESV)
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says something similar:
 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16, ESV)
And Jesus Himself confirms it:
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world.” (John 18:36a, ESV)
In the book of Revelation, the living creatures and the elders sing of it:

They sing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” (Rev 5:9-10, ESV)

All these verses confirm the idea that there is only one Christian nation - and it is not America or any other earthly nation. It is the nation consisting of those whom Christ has redeemed out of the nations of the earth. The church consists of those who trust Christ and willingly submit to Him as King. This church already reigns with Christ in heaven, but, when He returns, will reign with Him on the earth.

From this it follows that the quest to establish a nation formally as a Christian nation is a foolish one. It has no biblical basis and, if attempted, will only lead to apostasy and a repetition of the evils that attended the church in its abominable alliance with the Roman empire that began with the reign of Constantine.

So is it legitimate for Christians to play any part in earthly politics and government? The answer is definitely yes, so long as it is borne in mind that it is not the church that is to govern earthly kingdoms on earth before Christ's return. Rather, individual Christians are to seek to do justly in using that power and influence which God has entrusted to them. As is well-illustrated in the discussion of biblical law above, doing this is by no means a simple matter. It often involves a great deal of thinking to determine whether laws and policy proposals are consistent with the moral Law of God, and with the societal obligation to care for the weak and suffering.

In short, Christians are called to act as salt and light in this present evil age, upholding the requirements of the moral Law of God in their own lives, submitting to and supporting earthly governments so long as what those governments require is consistent with what is right, and using whatever authority or influence God has entrusted to them to see that justice and righteousness are established and mercy is done.

But neither America nor any other earthly nation is the promised Land. The Christian's citizenship is in heaven. We will not build the New Jerusalem. That city will descend from heaven with Christ. We are sojourners here in Babylon and must seek the good of the earthly cities (or nations) in which we dwell. Law and morality are not the Gospel. We Christians have infinitely more in common with Christians of other nations than we have with the pagans in our own. Our thanksgiving to God for the blessings of belonging to our earthly nations (in my case, of being an American), and our earnest efforts to establish righteousness and do justice in our nations must never distract us from preaching the Gospel of salvation through faith in Christ and entry through Him into the eternal heavenly kingdom to which the redeemed from every nation belong.

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