In Part One, we looked at how Washington, DC, pastor Anthony Evans’ declaration that the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear a case challenging the DC gay marriage law had “set up … the greatest civil war between the church and the gay community” reflected common misunderstandings of the foundations of US government. Today, we’ll look at things from the other side: the Christianity witnessed in the New Testament categorically rejects any conflation of the church (or the Kingdom of God) with a nation or government on this present earth. Any attempt to connect the government and the church misunderstands an essential part of the early Christian message.
“My Kingdom is Not of This World”
Jesus, when his kingship was questioned, responded, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). The beginning of Acts portrays the disciples asking the resurrected Jesus, “Will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). The rest of Acts shows that this question misunderstood the nature of the kingdom—the kingdom was indeed to be restored to Israel, but not in an earthly sense. Rather, Jesus was to rule his kingdom from his throne in the heavens, separate from and above every earthly government. Only at his return would that change. When Revelation depicts the cooperation of religion and the state, the results are horrifying—and really bad news for the church (cf. Rev 13:11–18; 17–18).
Unfortunately, these warnings have been largely ignored over the past two thousand years. In the United States, the last few decades have witnessed the rise of postmillennial “dominion” theologies, which teach that God has commanded and authorized the church to establish the kingdom of God on earth, at which point Christ will return to claim his kingdom. (There are actually two separate strands of dominion teaching, one tying more closely to Reformed “Reconstructionism” and another coming out of the Charismatic Movement, but the end result of Christian “dominion” on the earth is the same in each.) Such dominion-style teaching is by no means new, and it is instructive to note that an older strain of this “Christ has commanded and authorized us to take dominion of the world in his name” teaching produced such outstanding fruit as the Holy Roman Empire, the Crusades, and the Spanish Inquisition. (Even the reformers were not immune, as John Calvin’s opponents in Geneva discovered.)
The Dangers of Assuming God is on Our Side
It is critically important that we realize that these atrocities were not committed by “monsters” bent on doing what they knew to be wrong; on the contrary, these things were done by people with good intentions, men who believed God to be on their side. (As John 16:2 warns, “An hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is serving God.”) In fact, as C.S. Lewis observes, it is not the sadist who is most to be feared but the person who commits atrocities thinking it’s the right thing to do.
My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. … The practical problem of Christian politics is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society, but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow-subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish. (“The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”)
I should add at this point that such cruelty for the sake of the victim does not require belief in God at all but only a misguided sense of one’s own morality and a supreme confidence that one is in the right. Leninism, for example, had no supernatural deity but its oppression was exercised with a thorough confidence that all was being done for the good of the people—leading to millions of murders. Christianity, insofar as it follows Jesus, contains an antidote for this with the “take the speck out of your own eye first” command, demanding self-examination and purification before ever trying to help another. At any rate, given the dangers of nationalism (which led to the two world wars of the 20th Century), it is especially dangerous if a populace comes to think of itself as “God’s special nation.” Even ancient Israel, which could legitimately claim a special covenant with YHWH, shows a recognition of this principle:
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and suddenly saw a man was standing opposite him with his sword drawn in his hand. Joshua went to him and said, “Are you for us or for our adversaries?” He replied, “No. On the contrary, I come now as captain of the army of YHWH.” And Joshua fell on his face and bowed down, saying to him, “What does my lord have to say to his servant?” (Jos 5:13–14)
Joshua instinctively asks “are you with us or against us,” only to be rebuked with a resounding, “No.” God is impartial—even when it involves his chosen people. Rather, the question is whether we are on God’s side. Reversing the question in that manner forces an entirely different way of thinking and practicing ethical behavior. That the biblical prophets repeatedly assert that God in fact raises up (and casts down) unholy nations and empires should be even more unsettling and sobering. According to the prophets, God supernaturally raised up the unspeakably brutal Assyrian Empire and the violent Babylonian Empire (cf. Habakkuk); in Isaiah, God even calls Cyrus the Great of Persia “my anointed”; did this mean the Persians were God’s “holy nation”? By this standard, the USA most assuredly had supernatural assistance in attaining its present state of power—and that fact says exactly nothing about the USA having any sort of special relationship with God. The USA has no more claim on God than any other nation or empire ever has.
We should always be cautious of assuming that God is on our side or has a special relationship with our nation. Odds are that people in other nations are thinking the same thing—Karl Barth observed after World War I that all the nations (and the vast majority of those nations’ churches) involved in the war believed God was on their side. Likewise, many missionaries—such as Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and Amy Carmichael—have gone abroad only to realize that many missionaries (including themselves, initially) were spreading western culture, not the Christian gospel, leading them to abandon their own western trappings for the sake of the gospel. The church must always be on guard against provincialism, against allowing itself to take a nationalist, culturalist, or regionalist perspective as opposed to a global perspective, and nowhere is this more a danger than in the United States.
So, in summary of this point, the United States is not a “chosen nation” or a “new Israel,” nor is there any notion in the NT of a Christian empire on this earth. Any teaching to such effect should be summarily rejected by those claiming to believe in the New Testament gospel. Dominion theology and every other version of Christian theocratic trajectory misunderstands the Christian mission and the definition of the kingdom of God as consistently set forth in the New Testament. Rather, Jesus is ruling a heavenly kingdom, ruling over a global church from his throne in the heavens. Christians are thus forbidden from any strong form of nationalism, regionalism, or culturalism, because these things divide the Body of Christ.
Legislation of Morality
The pastor’s comments betray another fundamental break with early Christian theology, which asserts that external laws are powerless to change behavior. And yet, this is a mistake made by all parties in the present political sphere. If there’s a problem, the answer is almost invariably, “Let’s enact a new law to prevent this from happening in the future.” Did someone get shot? We need more or better gun control laws. Are the poor struggling to get by? We should raise taxes on the rich to force them to provide for the poor. Government legislation is somehow seen as the answer to society’s woes, despite the fact that this attitude sows the seeds of society’s decay. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn well summarized this pathetic state of affairs in 1978:
Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting and manipulating law, even though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames. An oil company is legally blameless when it purchases an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to buy it.
I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.
Put differently, we can’t legislate morality (though every law is theoretically based upon a specific moral principle). We can’t legislate good choices. The law’s capacity to make a person behave morally is limited. The law can declare an act to be illegal (serving as a necessary instrument to keep social order), but it is not an effective means for changing behavior, stripping ethics of care and concern. Instead, to produce lasting change (as opposed to simply avoiding getting caught), behavior must be changed from the inside out—the essence the Christian message of transformation, without which there is no gospel. Yet, today we have major movements in American Christianity which focus on introducing or preserving political/civil laws to ensure that the surrounding culture conform to its standards. This is puzzling, especially given the support from Evangelical circles, which would regard many (or most) of the people in the culture to be “lost” anyway. Why spend so much time trying to make unbelievers behave somewhat like believers? Should the emphasis not be upon bringing about a change of heart rather than a change of law?
Did Paul (a Roman citizen according to Acts, after all) petition Rome to outlaw specific sexual practices or reform its class structure? Of course not! Instead, he preached a gospel of transformation, believing that the Holy Spirit could and would change lives and eventually culture in a way that no legal reform ever could. And yet many American Christians are taking the alternate course of action, despite the fact that no amount of legislation will ever bring about the cultural change they are seeking; instead these skirmishes only signal that the church is fighting a losing battle. And no wonder; it is only because the church already lacks influence that such legislation would seem to be needed. To put it bluntly, a church that looks to and relies upon the government to enforce its wishes is a spiritually bankrupt and powerless church. The church’s responsibility is to be salt (seasoning) in society, changing the hearts of the culture around it through its witness to the justice and truth of God. A church that eschews political coercion and instead chooses to lovingly serve and bear witness to true justice, willing to undergo suffering in the process, is a powerful and influential force—that church will ultimately have a dramatic impact on its society’s laws by impacting the hearts and values of the culture.
The Church as a Check in Society
So does this mean that the church should completely withdraw from society, operating as a closed system with no concern for politics? By no means! Rather, the church should always serve as a check upon governmental power and authority, always ready to lay itself on the line to protect against tyranny and abuse of power. It is the church’s responsibility to ensure that the helpless are protected—even at great cost. This is something that people like Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the ten Booms understood and embraced. But the church must always be mindful of falling on the other side. The biblical prophets who are commended are not those who strengthened the hands of the state as it governed in power. No, the prophetic duty always serves as a check against abuse of power. The true prophets were always those who were willing to stand up to a ruler who could have their heads, willing to take their lives in their hands (or rather put their lives in the hand of God) in order for the truth, the demands of justice, to be proclaimed. Think of Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, Micaiah, Jeremiah. We know of these men because they stood against the governments of their day, taking a stand against abuses, defending the powerless, demanding integrity, willing to suffer and die for this purpose. This is the perpetual prophetic task of the church in society.
How then does all of this apply to the specific issue (marriage and sexuality) under discussion? That question will be addressed in Part Three.